PM asked to stay for a year

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Tony Blair's most loyal ministers are urging him to stay in office for a year. They have privately said his early departure would hand the Tories a weapon concerning Labour's lack of "legitimacy" after a change of leader.

The Prime Minister's decision to back his wounded deputy, John Prescott, in the row over his involvement with US billionaire Philip Anschutz and the Greenwich Dome, has fuelled expectations at Westminster that Mr Blair will signal both their departures at the Labour Party conference in September.

There is growing speculation among ministers that an election for the leader and deputy leader will be triggered by the end of the year, with a special spring conference called to announce the results and anoint their successors early in the new year.

But Blairite ministers have joined the so-called "ultras" inside No 10 in pressing him not to quit this year. "There would be immediate problems if Tony did go early," said one minister. "We would be challenged over our legitimacy. The Opposition would mount a campaign for an early general election. Also, once Tony had gone, he would become a hero, which is in the nature of things. And it would appear he had been forced out. There would be a backlash against Gordon Brown. None of this would work to Gordon's advantage."