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Defiant Blair rejects quit calls

BBC | February 2, 2007

A defiant Tony Blair has said he will not give in to pressure to quit over the cash-for-honours affair.
The Prime Minister told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he hoped the police inquiry would be over "shortly".

But he said he intended to "get on with the job," adding: "You will have to put up with me for a bit longer."

Mr Blair is due to stand down this year but has come under pressure to go now after being interviewed by police as a witness for a second time.

Senior Labour figures, including party chairman Hazel Blears and former leader Neil Kinnock, have said the cash-for-honours inquiry is damaging the government.

Conservative leader David Cameron has called on Mr Blair to stand down now "in the national interest". Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell has also called for Mr Blair to go "sooner rather than later".

Mr Blair, who has not named an exit date but is widely expected to remain in his job until June, told Today it would "not be very democratic" to stand down earlier than he had planned.

But he added: "I am not going to beg for my character in front of anyone. People can make up their own mind about me."

Asked about the police inquiry, Mr Blair said: "I think it's got to run its course over the next few weeks.

"I hope it will be wound up and let's see where we are then, and in the meantime despite what people may think, I get on with the job."

He cautioned voters against believing everything they read "ricocheting around the media", some of which he said was "untrue".

He said he would be happy to speak publicly about the affair once the police inquiry is over.

'Respect'

He was then asked whether he still saw himself as "a pretty straight kind of guy," as he famously described himself in 1997 over the Ecclestone affair, the first funding scandal to engulf his premiership.

"I am not going to get into a situation where I am pleading for my integrity, not even actually in front of the public," he told interviewer John Humphrys.

He said he had "a deep respect for the British people and it's been an honour and privilege to lead them".

But he had "changed" over the past 10 years and was a "different sort of person" now, who was less concerned about being "liked".

Defending his record on the economy, health, education and social reform he said he would have "bitten the arm off" anyone who offered him the current situation a decade ago.

But he said Labour still had to do more to address the growing wealth gap and improve "social mobility," particularly for the "10% at the bottom".

Four members of Mr Blair's inner circle, including his chief fundraiser Lord Levy, have now been questioned by police investigating claims honours were given in exchange for cash. All deny any wrongdoing.

Damage

Mr Blair was interviewed for a second time on Friday, but the news was kept secret until Thursday at the police's request.

He was not interviewed under caution, which means he is being treated as a witness rather than a suspect.

But senior Labour figures have said the affair is damaging the government's reputation and eroding trust in politics.

Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock has warned it will take "years" for the political system to recover from the damage the inquiry had caused.

And party chairwoman Hazel Blears told BBC2's Newsnight: "This whole affair has overshadowed our domestic agenda: it is quite difficult to get your message across."

Constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman told BBC One's Question Time the affair was "eroding trust".

'Sleaze'

Commenting on Mr Blair's interview, Sir Menzies Campbell said: "This is a prime minister treading water while his Cabinet moves on. There is resignation in his voice.

"He should go sooner rather than later. Until he does the British people themselves have no chance to move on."

Labour MP Shahid Malik agreed that the police investigation was "damaging".

But he told BBC News 24: "It is different from the sleaze of the Tory years, which actually was about cash-for-questions, about personal gain."

He urged voters to "wait for the inquiry to conclude," adding it would be "silly" to say it will be Mr Blair's legacy.

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