Reid denies PM was on brink of quitting

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Allies of Tony Blair tried yesterday to play down reports that the Prime Minister was on the brink of standing down earlier this year.

Allies of Tony Blair tried yesterday to play down reports that the Prime Minister was on the brink of standing down earlier this year.

John Reid, the Health Secretary, acknowledged Mr Blair had faced family pressures and went through a "down period" but insisted he never told colleagues he would resign.

Mr Reid, one of Mr Blair's closest cabinet allies, admitted that the allegations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib jail near Baghdad and the "domestic situation" had put unprecedented strain on him.

"The Prime Minister is human like anyone else," he told BBC Radio 4. "He has up periods and down periods but that doesn't mean to say he goes around planning resignations. I think I am as close to the Prime Minister as most people are and I can tell you throughout that period at no stage did he indicate to me that he was going to resign or that he was making plans or considering any announcements or pre-announcements of resignation."

The speculation was fuelled on Tuesday when the broadcaster Lord Bragg said Mr Blair came close to quitting for personal rather than political reasons. His intervention has infuriated Blair supporters, who described it as a ham-fisted attempt to be helpful to Mr Blair following a report in The Independent on Tuesday that he told Gordon Brown last November that he would stand down this autumn.

One Blair aide said: "To say this is part of some orchestrated campaign is total garbage. The first anyone knew of what [Lord Bragg] was going to say was when it came on the news."

The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "I think anybody who looks through the last year recognises that there are tough times when you are prime minister. That's no different for this prime minister than any other prime minister. Lord Bragg is an individual and, therefore, entitled to say whatever he wants to say."

However, the moves by the Blair camp failed to bring the Westminster rumour mill to a halt. Many Labour MPs are convinced that Mr Blair at least hinted to Mr Brown that he would stand down when John Prescott held a "peace dinner" for the two men last November. Allies of the Chancellor believe Mr Blair gave a firm promise to leave Downing Street if Mr Brown promised to support him through the next year.

One senior Labour figure dismissed Lord Bragg's remark about Mr Blair's family pressures as "a red herring", pointing out that the dinner took place some months before the personal matters to which he was apparently referring. "This was political, not personal," he said.

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