MPs tell Blair to come clean on date of departure

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Tony Blair has been hit by an open mutiny among previously loyal Labour MPs who are threatening to force him out of Downing Street unless he agrees to stand down soon.

Tony Blair has been hit by an open mutiny among previously loyal Labour MPs who are threatening to force him out of Downing Street unless he agrees to stand down soon.

To avoid the humiliation of being evicted from No 10 by his own party like Margaret Thatcher in 1990, Mr Blair may have to issue a public promise within days to stand down by next summer. Last week, he said he would not reveal his departure timetable but his stance provoked a backlash which has left him at the mercy of events beyond his control.

Reports in The Sun newspaper last night said Mr Blair was going to step down as Labour leader on 31 May, before quitting as Prime Minister on 26 July. Downing Street declined to comment on the report, saying it had "no comment on any speculation about the timetable".

Mr Blair had shifted his ground earlier yesterday by authorising loyalists to promise in public that he would no longer be Prime Minister in a year's time.

There was a strong indication from within the Cabinet that Mr Blair will leave office within 12 months when Hilary Armstrong, the minister for Social Exclusion and a close ally of Mr Blair, told the BBC: "We expect there will be a new leader in post for the conference 2007."

But that failed to satisfy the growing number of Labour MPs. "Each day, we look more and more like the Tories in Thatcher's last days," one loyal cabinet minister said. "If we carry on like this, we will suffer the same fate as the Tories and be out of office for 15 years."

Other cabinet ministers believe Mr Blair should quit before next May's elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English local authorities. There was speculation at Westminster that a delegation of senior Labour Party figures, possibly including at least one cabinet minister, may soon go to No 10 to urge him to stand down quickly. Opponents claim that at least 80 Labour MPs are ready to go public with a call for Mr Blair to quit, with another 40 sharing that view privately. Critics said only a "bankable public statement from his own lips" would quell the open rebellion.

It emerged yesterday that 17 previously loyalist MPs who entered the Commons in 2001 have signed a letter praising his achievements as Prime Minister but calling on him to go. It is believed the list originally included two ministers ­ Tom Watson, a junior Defence minister and Kevin Brennan, a government whip ­ who later withdrew their names.Blair aides insisted that no such letter had been received in Downing Street. They suggested that supporters of Gordon Brown were behind the plot to push him out. Brownites dismissed such claims as "rubbish", saying the Chancellor did not want to inherit a divided party. They said what mattered most was not when Mr Blair departed but that there was a "stable and orderly transition".

The sense of turmoil increased when 49 loyalists signed a rival letter to the Prime Minister, urging him to stick to his guns in refusing to set out a precise timetable. But Blair critics claimed that the loyalists' statement was cooked up in Downing Street.

The MPs' revolt was fuelled by the leaking of a memo drawn up by Blair aides in April setting out plans for his exit strategy. The ideas in it included a farewell tour to proclaim the "triumph of Blairism" and appearances onBlue Peter and Songs of Praise. The memo said: "He needs to go with the crowds wanting more. He should be the star who won't even play that last encore."

Commenting on The Sun report, Norman Lamb, the chief of staff to the Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, said: "It is not acceptable for the apparatus of Government to be paralysed by the internal politics of the Labour Party.

The International Development Secretary, Hilary Benn, said last night: " I have no idea where The Sun got that story. The Prime Minister has said that he will do the right thing by the party."

Et tu, Brute?

Revealed: Loyalist MPs who signed a letter telling Blair to name his departure date

Chris Bryant RHONDDA





Chris Mole IPSWICH





Kevin Brennan CARDIFF WEST (signed but thought to have withdrawn name)

Tom Watson WEST BROMWICH EAST (signed but thought to have withdrawn name)