Sat, Sep 02, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Blair defies calls for a leaving date

GETTING JUMPY A Labour backbencher has expressed concern that refusing to give a timetable has fed Labour infighting and distracted from the work of government

AFP , LONDON

British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday defied growing pressure to set a date for his departure from office, including mounting calls from within his own Labour Party.

In an interview with the Times, Blair -- who has served nine years at the helm -- warned that if the party kept talking about a change in leadership, people would think the government was paralyzed.

"If people want stable and orderly change, they should not keep obsessing about it in the meantime but, instead, get on with the business of government," Blair said.

"What will increase our problem in the [opinion] polls is if people think that we're either paralyzed as a government or have run out of steam because we are debating this issue continually," he warned.

In remarks for which he later expressed regret, the prime minister promised after his party won an unprecedented third election in May last year that he would step down before the next general election, which must take place no later than in 2010.

His pledge has fueled endless speculation about his plans, prompting him to say earlier this year that he would give ample time for his widely expected successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, to settle in before the next general election.

In the interview, Blair said he had done what none of his predecessors have done.

"I've said I won't fight another election. I've also said, on the record, that I will give ample time to my successor," he said.

That should be enough for "anyone reasonable," he said.

Commentators said his remarks suggest that Blair would not use the Labour Party conference -- which will be held from Sept. 24 to Sept. 28 -- to give a more specific departure timetable, which many of his critics had hoped he would do.

Former junior defense minister Don Touhig said on Thursday that the leadership question was "bleeding the Labour Party at its heart."

Labour backbencher Howard Stoate added: "There is no doubt that uncertainty has led to distraction and infighting, which I think is unnecessary."

"I am beginning to come round to the view that we do need a firm timetable because we can't go on with endless speculation," Stoate said. "What it does is simply distract the media, it distracts backbenchers like me who just want to get on with the job."

Speculation has also arisen even over whether Brown would ever fulfill his longstanding and barely concealed ambition.

The BBC's evening current affairs program on Thursday led with a discussion over whether or not Home Secretary John Reid would be a serious candidate for Blair's position once he steps down.

Reid has emerged as a challenger to Brown in any potential leadership contest, following his high-profile role in the response to a foiled terror plot involving US-bound passenger jets last month.

Blair looked to side-step any questions regarding how much longer he would last.

"I will do my best for the country and the party to make sure that when I do depart it is done in a stable and sensible and orderly way, but, in the meantime, to get on with the job of prime minister," he told the Times.

Labour has in recent weeks been hit hard by poor opinion polls, with an ICM poll published in the Guardian on Aug. 22 putting support for the party at just 31 percent, its lowest level since 1987.

The main opposition Conservative Party, meanwhile, polled at 40 percent.

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