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Lawmakers call for Blair to set resignation date

Lawmakers in Tony Blair’s Labour Party are circulating a draft of a letter calling on the British prime minister to set a date for his departure, a legislator told The Associated Press on Sunday.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrive
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, seen here arriving on Wednesday at Westminster City School in London to cast his vote in local council elections. Carl De Souza / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lawmakers in Tony Blair’s Labour Party are circulating a draft of a letter calling on the prime minister to set a date for his departure, a legislator told The Associated Press Sunday.

The letter addressed to Labour’s executive committee was widely reported in the British media on Sunday, two days after Blair’s major overhaul of his government.

Mounting crises engulfing the prime minister were cited as being behind the letter. Some lawmakers also said they simply want to know who would lead Labour into the next election, which Blair has said he will not contest.

Top party figures warned rebels among the rank-and-file against launching a coup that could destroy Labour.

Meanwhile, Blair struggled to get his troubled government back on track after taking a beating in local government elections nationwide on Thursday. Labour made an embarrassing third-place finish in the vote, which had been seen as a referendum on Blair’s popularity.

The prime minister’s Cabinet shake-up on Friday indicated he intends to hold onto his job. He often says he won re-election to a third term just a year ago and plans to serve a full term, although he will not seek a fourth in elections planned in 2009.

From one thing to the next
But his government has lurched from one crisis to the next in recent weeks.

The latest was the local elections, which followed a furor over officials’ failure to screen foreign criminals for deportation when they were released from British prisons and allegations that Blair nominated Labour’s financial backers to the House of Lords.

Labour lawmakers are circulating the draft letter but did not plan to make it public immediately, one Labour legislator told AP on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be publicly linked to the rebels in the party.

“The letter will materialize in due course if there’s no change of mind on his part,” the lawmaker said. “It can be posted at any time.”

The lawmaker said rebels wanted to avoid damaging the party but were “prepared to be tough” if Blair did not announce plans to step down.

The legislator did not provide a direct quotation from the letter, which was addressed to Labour’s executive committee.

Newspaper publishes text
But the Sunday Telegraph newspaper published what it said was a text of the letter. It urged Labour’s executive committee “in consultation with the prime minister, to lay out, no later than the end of the current Parliamentary session, a clear timetable and procedure for the election of a new Labour Party leader.”

The current session of Parliament ends in July.

“We strongly believe that such a statement will ensure the continuing success of the Labour government and renew the link between our party and the British people,” the letter said.

Graham Stringer, a Labour lawmaker from Manchester, said he had not seen the letter but supported it and believed about a fifth of Labour’s 353 members of Parliament would do the same.

“If it asks for a schedule for Blair to go, then I would sign it. My guess is more than 70 or 80 MPs would sign it,” he told AP. “I think the prime minister is a destabilizing influence on government. He doesn’t need to get re-elected. We need to have someone who will be leading us in the next election.”

Blair’s allies rejected the idea Sunday, saying that if the prime minister announced the timing of his departure, he would strengthen the opposition Conservatives.

“They are not going to win,” Home Secretary John Reid said on British Broadcasting Corp. television, referring to Blair’s Labour opponents.

Transition issues
Stephen Byers, a former transportation secretary and close Blair ally, said forcing the prime minister out would make an orderly transition to his successor — widely expected to be Treasury chief Gordon Brown — impossible.

“For those people who are organizing a coup against him, they are playing a very dangerous game and they should stop,” he told Sky News.

Brown said he did not know when Blair, his longtime rival, planned to step down.

Seeking to prevent a damaging public split in the party, he also criticized the Labour lawmakers urging Blair to quit.

“We don’t need outriders dictating the agenda,” he said. “The mainstream position, what the vast majority of (Labour lawmakers) want, and what I want, what Tony Blair wants ... is a stable and orderly transition.”

Brown repeated his assertion that the Labour Party must renew itself to lure back voters, which some have interpreted as a coded demand for Blair’s departure. But Brown said he was talking about policies, not a change in leadership.