Fri, Sep 08, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Blair vows to quit within a year, doesn't name date

CRISIS The British prime minister broke his silence on when he would step down in a bid to end the turmoil and furious infighting that has raged in the Labour Party

AGENCIES , LONDON

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday he would quit within a year but refused to give an exact date to placate Labour Party mutineers who want a speedy change of leader to revive their fortunes.

He said that this month's conference of Britain's ruling party would be his last as leader.

But in a televised statement, he said: "I'm not going to set a precise date now, I don't think that's right. I will do that at a future date and I'll do it in the interests of the country."

His finance minister and expected successor Gordon Brown, eager to heal damaging divisions in the ruling party, said earlier he would support Blair's decision.

Brown, whose relationship with Blair has at times been strained over the years, stressed that it was for the embattled premier to decide when to go.

Blair's popularity has tumbled in opinion polls after government scandals over sleaze and misman-agement were compounded by controversy over the wars in Iraq and Lebanon. Some former supporters urgently want a change at the top.

Labour holds its annual conference later this month in the northern English city of Manchester and party members had been clamoring to know whether it will be Blair's last.

Blair has ruled the country for almost a decade and won three consecutive elections but with support quickly ebbing away, some members of his party have begun to see him as an electoral liability.

With party colleagues running scared about Blair's growing unpopularity and losing their jobs at the next election, a junior minister and seven government aides quit on Wednesday after calling on him to step down now.

Tom Watson, a junior defense minister, was one of 17 Labour lawmakers who signed a letter to Blair this week saying it was not "in the interest of either the party or the country" for the prime minister to stay in office.

The fast-moving developments -- for some recalling the way Margaret Thatcher was brought down by her Conservative Party in 1990 -- came after the Sun newspaper reported that Blair planned to stand down as prime minister in July.

Resignations were just one part of a chaotic day in Westminster, the heart of British politics, as Blair reportedly clashed heatedly with his heir apparent, finance minister Brown, in two face-to-face meetings.

Brown demanded that Blair resign quickly enough for his successor to be in place by May, which the prime minister dismissed as "totally unreasonable," the Independent daily reported.

It said Brown also demanded that Blair publicly endorse Brown's leadership bid, and instigate a system of "co-decision" under which the chancellor would be able to veto key policy decisions until Blair's successor was in place.

The two apparently engaged in a shouting match, and the Guardian reported that Blair authorized the use of the word "blackmail" by his staff to describe Brown's actions.

The meetings ended with no agreement over how to proceed, it said.

Meanwhile, one of Blair's key allies, Environment Secretary David Miliband, himself considered a leadership candidate by some, seemed to rule himself out of a race for Blair's job and supported Brown as Labour's next leader.

"I'm neither a runner nor a rider for any of the contests," Miliband told the New Statesman magazine.

Blair had already pledged he will not stand at the next election, expected in 2009.

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