Senior ministers rallied round a beleaguered Tony Blair yesterday as they sought to quash speculation that he might stand down as Prime Minister this summer amid fears that he has become dangerously isolated inside his own Cabinet and party.
Although Blair aides dismissed the idea he might quit as "nonsense" and "tittle-tattle", the move to bolster his position by loyalist ministers was seen as a clear sign that the Prime Minister is facing the most testing period since he won power seven years ago. The Cabinet meets today against a background of continuing problems for Mr Blair over Iraq, Europe and immigration.
In the Commons yesterday, Labour MPs rallied behind Mr Blair when he attacked Michael Howard's record as Home Secretary during fierce exchanges at Prime Minister's questions. But behind the scenes Westminster was awash with rumours about his future.
Some Blair loyalists admitted that he needed to reassert his authority, saying it has been undermined by his unexpected U-turn over a referendum on the proposed European constitution.
A senior Labour backbencher said: "He looks isolated. Labour MPs are not taking bets on him staying. It's still hard to believe he will go this year, but everyone is talking about it."
Loyalists including John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, and Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, are leading moves for the Cabinet to throw its full weight behind the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Hilary Armstrong, the Government Chief Whip, is seeking to kill speculation among Labour MPs that Mr Blair's future as Prime Minister is in question. One minister said: "We must get behind him as a cabinet. Tony Blair is not going to go. He is going to fight his corner." Another said: "He is going to stick around. We must make it clear that he will stick around. The referendum announcement was a disaster and we must repair that damage. It was appalling that it leaked to the press before ministers knew about it."
Other ministers are concerned that Mr Blair was "bounced" into a rushed decision on a referendum by an axis formed by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who led the campaign for a plebiscite, and Gordon Brown, the Chancellor.
The Prime Minister was alarmed that the first leak about his U-turn emerged the day after a small group of senior ministers discussed tentatively the possibility of a referendum and agreed to consider the issue again. There was another leak while he took an Easter break in Bermuda and by the time he returned further reports had made the decision virtually a fait accompli, one minister said.
In the Commons yesterday, Mr Blair admitted that he apologised to last week's cabinet meeting for the way the announcement was made. Although Blair aides acknowledge that the issue was handled badly, they insist that the Prime Minister now has the Cabinet's full support for a referendum.
Speculation about Mr Blair's future was fuelled on Sunday when Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, suggested he might "hang up his boots" after the Europe referendum. Blair allies said last night that he intends to serve a full third term if he wins a new mandate at the general election he has pencilled in for May next year - a statement that risks comparisons with Margaret Thatcher's determination to go "on and on and on" before she was forced out by her own party.
Privately, however, some ministers expect Mr Blair to retire one or two years into the next parliament and endorse Mr Brown as his successor.
They believe he will signal his intention to serve a full four or five-year parliament at the election in an attempt to head off criticism that he is a "lame duck" leader. The Tories have already drawn up plans to campaign on a slogan of "Vote Blair, Get Brown".
It emerged yesterday that Jacques Chirac, the French President, has privately protested to Mr Blair in a telephone conversation about his decision to call a referendum on the European constitution. Downing Street refused to comment on the contents of their call, clearly fearing opening a fresh diplomatic rift with the French.
A senior cabinet minister said: "Chirac said he thought Tony could have held off the pressure for a referendum."
Mr Blair clashed with Mr Howard yesterday over Iraq, Europe and immigration. He accused the Tory leader of planning to cut the number of immigration staff by 1,200 when he was Home Secretary. But last night the Tories rejected the charge and made an official protest about it.
Liam Fox, the Tories' co-chairman, is writing to Mr Blair and Sir Andrew Turnbull, the Cabinet Secretary, about the claim. He said: "This is either a case of complete fabrication or Blair's desperate dirty tricks machine in operation."
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