Francis Elliott, Whitehall Editor / The Independent – 2006-09-03 23:39:34
LONDON (September 3, 2006 ) — Tony Blair will be served notice to quit Downing Street at a meeting of the Cabinet next week when senior ministers plan to confront him over his refusal to commit to a departure timetable.
One described Mr Blair this weekend as “deluded”, while another said he was being “self-indulgent”. They are among a growing number of cabinet ministers, some formerly loyal to Mr Blair, who have concluded he must leave office sooner rather than later if Labour is to have a chance of winning a fourth term.
“This pantomime has to end or we are going to lose the next election,” said one last night.
Another was brutally dismissive of the Prime Minister’s attempt to “spray around policy initiatives” ahead of the party’s annual conference in Manchester. “Tony is deluding himself if he thinks that anyone is listening to all this stuff.”
Senior ministers were speaking last night of “near-panic” among MPs in marginal seats as Labour’s poll ratings plunge because of the in-fighting.
One said that Mr Blair was being “self-indulgent” in seeking to bind the hands of his successor to ever-more radical reforms of the public services .
A group of senior ministers is determined at a meeting of a so-called “political Cabinet” next week to tell the Prime Minister to his face that he must give a clear timetable at the conference.
It will be the first time Mr Blair has met all his most senior colleagues since his controversial handling of the Lebanon conflict that led to near-mutiny.
His diminishing stock of political authority was laid bare when ministers such as Jack Straw and Douglas Alexander made clear their opposition to his hard-line stance.
Now he faces a full-scale revolt after suggesting that the “largest part” of those MPs who want him to go also desire a return to the beliefs and practices of “Old Labour”.
The remark, made in his interview with The Times on Thursday, was described as an “outrageous slur” by one of Gordon Brown’s key lieutenants. “Blair is doing the Tories’ dirty work for them.”
Mr Blair’s allies tried to cool tempers yesterday by suggesting that the Prime Minister would announce his departure ahead of the Scottish, Welsh and English local authority elections in May.
But senior Labour MPs say they need a public commitment to a timetable at the party’s conference or they will begin collecting support for a public call on Mr Blair to quit.
The fallout from his instruction to MPs to stop “obsessing” about his departure showed little signs of abating yesterday. He was dogged during a visit to Edinburgh by reporters’ shouted questions on his exit plans.
And the internal battles convulsing Labour were set to intensify last night with fresh interventions from Ed Balls, Mr Brown’s most trusted adviser on one side, and Alan Milburn, an ultra-Blairite, on the other.
Mr Balls is set to repeat his warning to Mr Blair that he must not make the mistake of Margaret Thatcher by staying too long in power.
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