'Stalking-horse' threat to oust Blair

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A left-wing MP has threatened to stand against Tony Blair as a "stalking-horse" candidate in an attempt to bounce him out of office this autumn.

A left-wing MP has threatened to stand against Tony Blair as a "stalking-horse" candidate in an attempt to bounce him out of office this autumn.

John Austin, the member for Erith and Thamesmead, said the Prime Minister must stand down before the Labour Party conference in September. Although a challenge would have little or no chance of succeeding in a leadership election, it could wound Mr Blair by showing the scale of opposition to him among MPs, party members and trade unions.

The MP said: "If the Prime Minister has not indicated he will go sooner rather than later then I would certainly think a stalking horse would be a possible tactic.

"I would be prepared to be a stalking-horse candidate but there may be more plausible candidates. I would hope he would have made his announcement before the party conference."

Mr Austin said Labour MPs had suffered a "hostile" reaction because of Mr Blair and that the party would have retained its 160 majority if Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, had led it into last week's election.

Mr Brown would have nothing to do with such a challenge and would back Mr Blair, and a contest would be a headache that the Prime Minister could do without at this stage. But "it could be dangerous," one Blairite MP said. "Look what happened to Margaret Thatcher."

In 1989, Baroness Thatcher was challenged for the Tory leadership by Sir Anthony Meyer. Although she won by 314 votes to 33, 60 of her MPs refused to support her. A year later, she was challenged by Michael Heseltine, a move which provoked her downfall when she failed to defeat him in the first ballot.

Clare Short, the former international development secretary, issued an ominous warning that the question of how long Mr Blair remained in Downing Street would overshadow his third term in office.

She predicted the Government would get "weaker and weaker" unless it changed the Prime Minister and dismissed calls by ministers for backbenchers to support the manifesto on which they were elected.

Blair allies have mounted a fight-back in an attempt to halt the current wave of criticism. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said: "Tony Blair was the salvation for the Labour Party. Those of us who went through the grim days of the 1980s, and what turned out to be not so easy days of the John Smith leadership, recognise that Tony Blair was a genius, and is a genius in turning the Labour Party around, forcing it to face up to a number of policy and ideological challenges."

Frank Field, the former minister for welfare reform, branded the behaviour of Mr Blair's critics as "unforgivable" and "treacherous". Although he said the cabinet reshuffle "was not being handled well", he added: "We went into the last election with a manifesto, and a leader who said that he would serve up to four years. And I find it inconceivable that people who stood on that ticket, now think they have a right to try to dismiss the Prime Minister."

Dave Prentis, leader of the public service union Unison, dismissed the idea of a leadership contest as "gesture politics". He said: "Talk of a leadership challenge and stalking horses is a complete and utter distraction from the programme of business for Labour's third term. What we should all be concentrating on at the beginning of this historic third term is how we make life better for ordinary, hard-working people."