Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Labour Party succession process gets nasty


The front pages of British newspapers published on Friday carried headlines covering the reported turmoil within the leadership of the British Labour Party.


The truce in the battle to succeed British Prime Minister Tony Blair showed signs of collapse yesterday after a key figure questioned whether a possible successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, was fit to lead.

The attack on Brown capped a venomous week in which Labour Party rebels forced Blair to promise he will quit within a year to avoid the risk of handing the opposition Conservatives a victory in the next general election in three or four years.

Once considered a shoo-in for the top job, Brown now face a leadership contest. According to an ICM poll in the Guardian newspaper, two-thirds of voters want a contest, and only a quarter hope for a coronation.

Brown had emerged smiling on Wednesday from a reportedly rancorous meeting with Blair about the succession arrangements only to find himself under fire soon afterward for his handling of events.

"His behavior has been absolutely stupid," former Cabinet minister Charles Clarke said in Friday's London Evening Standard.

He lamented that Brown had not stemmed the tide of criticism against Blair which peaked when eight junior members of the government resigned to protest Blair's steadfast refusal to clarify his departure plans.

That prompted junior minister Harriet Harman to lash out, warning that the party risked endless infighting unless it took immediate measures.

"I really think that everybody should shut up now," she said.

However, Clarke went even further in an interview with the Daily Telegraph on Saturday.

"His massive weakness is that he can't work with people," Clarke said.

Clarke also questioned whether Brown had the courage to take big decisions.

"He's not a risk-taker, and that matters," he told the newspaper.

The issue of when he will step down has dogged Blair for nearly two years.

In 2004 Blair said he would not stand for a fourth consecutive term in office but pledged to serve a full third term.

On Thursday Blair declined to set an exact date for his departure but said he would not be in office for Labour's annual party conference, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference, next September.

But pressure remains on him to go earlier -- in particular because the Brownites want to take power well ahead of the summer break next year to give themselves time to assert their authority before that annual political recess.

A poll published in the Daily Telegraph on Friday showed a majority of the British public think Blair should resign from office soon.

For some the week's fast-moving developments recalled the way former prime minister Margaret Thatcher was brought down by her Conservative Party in 1990.

The days of political chaos were dubbed Labour's "moment of madness" by a long-term Blair ally, European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.

For most commentators Blair's statement was a victory for Brown, even if he did not get all he wanted.

But many warned that the chancellor may have suffered from the image of having blood on his hands after the Downing Street coup.

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