Mud-slinging defines new era of open warfare as Labour unravels

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Intense in-fighting erupted in the Labour Party last night as supporters of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair hurled insults at each other over the Prime Minister's refusal to bow to pressure for a timetable for the handover of power.

In some of the most poisonous exchanges since Labour won office, opposing factions engaged in internecine warfare over Mr Blair's determination to resist demands to quit after the party's defeat in the local elections. John Reid, the new Home Secretary, one of Mr Blair's strongest supporters in the Cabinet, sparked a fresh round of backbiting after accusing Labour MPs of pursuing an agenda to "bring down" Mr Blair. One MP accused Mr Reid of "delusional, factional nonsense", adding "he's completely mad".

A defiant Mr Blair is planning to confront his backbench critics tonight at a private meeting of Labour MPs and warn that those trying to force him out are bent on turning the clock back to Old Labour.

Mr Blair will also use his monthly press conference at Downing Street to insist that he will stay to see the reform programme carried through. He will reject the calls by more than 50 Labour MPs who are threatening to submit a letter to Labour's ruling national executive later this week demanding a timetable for his departure by the end of July.

"Tony will not allow people who sign this letter to dictate the timetable," said said a source close to Mr Blair. "When the time is right, he will do so, but not now. You should look at the underlying ambitions of the people who put this letter together. They want a return to Old Labour.

"If you look at what happened in the elections in the south of England, that saw people move off to the Conservatives. Therefore the last thing we should do is consider any change of direction to the past. He will say the reform agenda must go on."

A string of former ministers lined up to call for Mr Blair to announce a date for his departure, including the former education secretary Estelle Morris, Kate Hoey and Nick Raynsford, who are not among the "usual suspects". But those calling for a timetable were infuriated by Mr Reid.

The Home Secretary said on BBC radio: "You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes ... this hasn't arisen spontaneously. The question is whether this is representative of the vast majority of the mainstream of the Labour Party. Do they want to shove Tony Blair out, stop the reform programme and go back in the direction of Old Labour? The vast majority of the Labour Party do not believe that, and it's why it's not going to happen."

Feelings were running so high that some Labour figures claimed that an aide to Mr Reid should be sacked for allegedly ringing up the BBC in advance of an interview with Gordon Brown to suggest difficult questions for the Chancellor.

David Hill, the Prime Minister's communications director, was also at the centre of wild allegations after he sent a text message on Saturday night to BBC reporters saying that the reports in the Sunday newspapers were part of a plot by known dissidents to oust Mr Blair. Claims that he sent a similar message to MPs were denied by Mr Hill.

There were also unsubstantiated claims that Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner and former media adviser to Mr Blair, was co-ordinating the fight-back for Mr Blair against the efforts by Brown supporters to oust him. Mr Blair's aides denied this.

As the row continued, the former cabinet minister Stephen Byers, a staunch Blair supporter, accused Labour MPs of plotting a coup to bring down Mr Blair. But Derek Wyatt, Labour MP for Sittingbourne, said: "We have got to be sensible how we transfer power, otherwise we won't just lose the next election, we will get thrashed."

Mr Brown used an interview on the BBC's Sunday AM programme, hosted by Andrew Marr, to call for an orderly transition of power. He revealed that Mr Blair was already talking to senior figures about the handover, and he urged "outriders" not to get involved in trying to bring him down.

Should Blair stay or should he go?


* 'We therefore ask the NEC, in consultation with the Prime Minister, to lay out, no later than the end of the current parliamentary session, a clear timetable and procedure for the election of a new Labour Party leader' - The letter circulating among Labour MPs calling for a timetable for Mr Blair's departure

* 'I am furious and the party will be furious about attempts to stifle or stop the discussion which needs to be had about a timetable for the orderly transition of leadership which is what we need and what party members want so that we can get on with the renewal of the Labour Party' - Andrew Smith, former minister

* 'If Tony Blair went in the next few days or the next few weeks I think it would be very helpful' - Kelvin Hopkins, Labour backbencher

* 'We have got a lack of trust in government at the moment and, in order to restore confidence, Tony Blair must tell us all when he is going to stand down and agree a timetable to elect a successor' - Geraldine Smith, backbencher


* 'Those people who are trying to shove Blair out, change the direction, use the situation to put us back to Old Labour - they are not going to win. There is no going back for this party. If we go back we are walking into the wilderness' - John Reid, Home Secretary

* 'The majority of the party are thinking why on earth are some quarters playing into the hands of the Tories when they want to be getting on with servicing their constituents? Setting a timetable is exactly what the Tories would want' - Hilary Armstrong, minister for social exclusion

* 'If we want to have an orderly transition, what we cannot have is the forced removal of Tony Blair as our leader. And for those people who are organising a coup against him, they are playing a very dangerous game and they should stop' - Stephen Byers, former transport secretary

* 'The response has got to be about policy and people's individual lives, not about this sort of internal discussion. I don't think the public are interested in that' - Lord Falconer, Lord Chancellor