PM dodges questions about his future

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Indy Politics

Downing Street launched a damage-limitation exercise after Tony Blair unwittingly sparked another flurry of speculation about when he will stand down as Prime Minister.

What he intended to be a low-key visit to Australia gave Mr Blair no respite from his domestic woes after he suggested he may have made "a mistake" by announcing before last year's election that he would not fight a fourth election as Labour leader.

At a press conference in Canberra early today, an embarrassed-looking Mr Blair dodged questions from the media about whether he had a departure date in his own mind.

Earlier, No 10 denied he had admitted he was wrong to make his statement in the autumn of 2004. But the damage was done and only served to highlight Mr Blair's increasing vulnerability amid the "loans for peerages" scandal. Some Labour MPs questioned whether he has the political capital to achieve his ambitions in office. Mr Blair sparked the latest round of speculation when he reflected on his decision to say he intended to serve a "full" third term, but would not stand for a fourth.

He told an ABC Radio interviewer: "Now, it was an unusual thing for me to say but people kept asking me the question so I decided to answer it. Maybe that was a mistake."

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said Mr Blair had been interrupted by the interviewer before he could make his full point. He said: "The Prime Minister is very clear in his own mind that what he was going to go on to say was that the hope that by pre-announcing he would kill the speculation had turned out not to be the case. He did not say that the pre-announcement was a mistake. He did not say that the pre-announcement had backfired."

The speculation was fuelled by suggestions that the Prime Minister now has a departure date in his own mind ­ but has not yet divulged it to close colleagues. He came under pressure from the Tories and Liberal Democrats to reveal plans.

The controversy overshadowed a speech by Mr Blair to the Australian Parliament in which he issued a sharp warning about the "madness" of European hostility to America over the invasion of Iraq.