It's up to Tony, say cabinet heavyweights

Senior cabinet ministers have told Tony Blair that the fate of his embattled leadership is now in his own hands.

Four members ­ Jack Straw, Peter Hain, Geoff Hoon and Alistair Darling ­ came out yesterday to shore up Mr Blair's leadership but, in spite of the public show of support, privately ministers were not ruling out the possibility that Mr Blair may decide to go before the general election.

"It's up to Tony," one of his senior ministers said last night. "If Tony says he is going to stay and fight the next general election, fine."

Another cabinet minister said: "It's down to Tony. He is resilient. He doesn't look like someone who is about to give up."

Charles Clarke, in an interview with The Independent, today says he believes the leadership speculation is "nonsense'' but he reflected doubts in the Cabinet when he added: "Maybe I am completely isolated. I don't think I am, but maybe I am. I just don't feel this stuff is going on.''

Mr Blair's cabinet allies said he would not step down before he had "cleared up the mess'' in Iraq.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who has been accused of forging an alliance with Gordon Brown for a senior post in a Brown administration, paid tribute to Mr Blair's leadership.

"The Prime Minister has led and continues to lead, and will lead for the future, one of the most successful administrations for the past 60 years," Mr Straw said. "This is a government defined by its leader. The success of this government is above all down to the success of its leader."

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, fuelled the speculation at the weekend by confirming that cabinet ministers were discussing the fact that "tectonic plates are moving'' in British politics.

But close friends of Mr Blair's fiercely loyal deputy said his remarks were a warning to ministers to stop manoeuvring for position. Mr Prescott, whose authority would be decisive if he withdrew his support from Mr Blair, made it clear to friends that he was seeking to protect the Prime Minister and will give him total backing to fight the next election.

One of Mr Prescott's allies said: "John thought Jack Straw, John Reid, Charles Clarke and others were manoeuvring and they should stop it."

The Deputy Prime Minister has also made it clear to colleagues there could be no handover of power without a contest, and that, in the approach to a general election, would damage the party. Another of Mr Prescott's allies said: "Tony is saying he is going to stay on and fight the general election. You would have to have a challenge to remove him in those circumstances ... Everyone knows that is not going to happen."

The fevered search for evidence of a coup took a surreal turn yesterday as the media descended on the car park of the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar in Argyll, where Gordon Brown and Mr Prescott were allegedly spotted in a ministerial Jaguar last weekend. They had been to John Smith's memorial service without Mr Blair and were said to have discussed a peaceful succession of power for Mr Brown and how Mr Prescott could use his influence to avoid a contest. Both camps flatly denied the claims yesterday.

Meanwhile, thousands more British troops are to be sent to Iraq without a fresh Commons vote, Cabinet ministers made it clear yesterday.

Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, led Labour backbench demands at the weekend for a fresh vote in the Commons before the deployment of more troops. He told The Independent: "It has been 12 months since the last vote on Iraq in the Commons. A lot has happened since there. There should be another vote before more troops are sent out to Iraq."

But their demands were rejected by Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, who said the Government had taken the unprecedented step of securing a vote for the war on Iraq last year. "I do not think people would want a vote or expect one on a detailed operational matter about troop deployment," he added.

THE CANDIDATES

Gordon Brown, 53 The Chancellor is the favourite and has courted the union and MPs' vote for years. He has pressed Blair to honour the "Granita" deal to stand down. Crown could go to the next generation if Blair delays for long. Odds: (William Hill) 4-7 favourite

Jack Straw, 57

The Foreign Secretary is not likely to run against Brown. He has established a close working relationship with the Chancellor. Could become Deputy PM in a Brown cabinet. Odds: 10-1

Charles Clarke, 53 The Education Secretary is a fighter and is expected to throw his hat in the ring for the Prime Minister's camp.

He would gain some MPs' votes as a "stop Gordon" candidate. Odds: 12-1

John Prescott, 65

The Deputy Prime Minister will not run. He has been a loyal deputy to Blair, but is a close ally of Brown. Will campaign for Brown to be elected and is likely to step down from the deputy leader's post when Blair goes. Odds: 50-1

David Blunkett, 56

The Home Secretary is unlikely to run against Brown. Had private dinner with the Chancellor to reach an understanding after falling out over the Home Office budget. Would expect senior post in a Brown cabinet. No odds

Alan Milburn, 46

The dark horse. Quit his cabinet post as Health Secretary to spend more time with his family, but could be the champion of the younger generation to stop Brown taking the crown unchallenged. No odds

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