British Prime Minister Tony Blair came under carefully choreographed public and private pressure from the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown's closest supporters on Friday to set out the timetable for his departure in the wake of dire local election results.
In an escalation of the power struggle between New Labour's two creators, Andrew Smith, a former Cabinet minister and an ally of Brown, identified the prime minister as the problem on the doorstep in the elections.
"We have uncertainty over the transition and it has to end very soon," Smith said. "It gets worse with every month that passes and reinforces the lack of trust in this government."
Ominously for Blair, backing for him to agree to an "orderly transition" soon is also coming from former Blairites such as Nick Raynsford and John Denham.
"I now think it's going to be necessary to set out a timetable for the change of leadership, though I do not think we should be specific or seek to impose one. But the objective of stability for ministers to deliver on key policies will not be possible if there is uncertainty over the leadership. Ministers will be continually looking over their shoulders," Raynsford said.
If Blair does not bow to the pressure, backbench members of parliament (MPs) intend to publish a letter, possibly by the end of next week, with as many as 75 signatures calling on him to agree to the transition or face a formal challenge. Brown himself called the election result -- Labour lost 306 seats and 18 councils -- a "warning shot" that showed the party needed to renew itself in the same way as it had in the 1980s. His aides said he would be speaking to Blair over the weekend about the need for renewal and an orderly transition.
The prime minister will hold a press conference tomorrow and address querulous Labour MPs tomorrow night. Despite the pincer movement against him, there is a defiant mood in Downing Street based on the fact that Blair was democratically elected only a year ago, the local election results were not calamitous and opinion polls do not show an overwhelming demand for him to go immediately. But Brown believes the defeats reflect an irretrievable loss of trust in the prime minister.
Brown's allies said that the chancellor had not been consulted over Blair's Cabinet reshuffle, and expressed displeasure at the appointment of Hazel Blears as chair of the party, replacing Ian McCartney. They were also disappointed that Hilary Armstrong lost her job as chief whip, to be sidelined as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and minister for social exclusion. She is replaced by Jacqui Smith, former schools minister.
Ruth Kelly was ousted as education secretary to become secretary for communities and local government, a new post taking over the reins of what was Prescott's fiefdom.