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Blair "to be replaced" within a year

Reuters | September 6, 2006
By Kate Kelland

LONDON - British Prime Minister Tony Blair aims to quit next year after 10 years in office but his reported departure date failed to quell growing opposition to his leadership within the government.

Newspaper reports on Wednesday of an exit date of July 26, 2007 signalled the start of a leadership battle which some fear may paralyse government and prompted two junior members to resign in protest at Blair's determination to hang on.

Finance Minister Gordon Brown is widely expected to take over as leader of the Labour Party and the country, and several key political figures urged the two men to map out a joint leadership.

Others insist there must be a leadership contest pitting Brown against potential contenders. Some Labour politicians want Blair to go now to avoid hurting the party's reputation further.

Two senior ministers and Blair allies have said this week the premier will be gone within a year. But junior Defence Minister Tom Watson quit on Wednesday, telling Blair the party needed a new leader urgently if it wanted to win a fourth term.

"I share the view of the overwhelming majority of the party and the country that the only way the party and the government can renew itself in office is urgently to renew its leadership," he said in a letter, distributed to British media.

Blair immediately said he had planned to sack Watson anyway. He said Watson had been "disloyal, discourteous and wrong" in signing a letter calling for the prime minister to quit along with 16 other previously loyal members of parliament.

Media reports said the letter's signatories believe up to 100 Labour parliamentarians could use Labour's annual conference this month to demand Blair publicly confirm his exit date.

Khalid Mahmood, who was a parliamentary private secretary to Home Office minister Tony McNulty and a signatory of the letter, also quit on Wednesday.

POPULARITY DIVE

Blair, 53, winner of a record three consecutive elections for Labour, has seen his popularity dive after a series of government scandals over sleaze and mismanagement, as well as controversy over wars in Iraq and Lebanon.

Opinion polls put Labour well behind the opposition Conservatives, who have been revived by their new, youthful, pro-environment leader, David Cameron.

Newspapers splashed Summer 2007 departure dates across their front pages, saying Blair had caved in to increasing pressure from Labour parliamentarians who had demanded a clear timetable.

The Sun tabloid said Blair would step down as Labour leader on May 31 -- less than a month after his tenth anniversary in office -- and resign as prime minister eight weeks later after an election to choose a party leader.

Contenders cited as potential challengers to Brown include Home Secretary John Reid, Education Secretary Alan Johnson and Environment Secretary David Miliband.

Blair's Downing Street office described the reports of his departure date as "speculation", but did not deny them.

Blair won his first term on May 1, 1997. A decade in power would leave him more than a year short of Margaret Thatcher's record as the longest-serving leader in more than a century.

Conservative leader Cameron told Sky television Blair was now a "lame-duck" premier heading a government in "meltdown".

Vincent Cable, spokesman for economic affairs at Britain's Liberal Democrat Party, said there was a risk that "the whole mechanism of government is being paralysed."

"If you have a prime minister whose position is under a great deal of uncertainty, the possibility of a protracted leadership campaign, the country is rudderless and leaderless."

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