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Blair Fails in Bid to Quell Leadership Talk
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British Prime Minister Tony Blair's attempt to halt speculation about when he will step down appeared to have backfired on Sunday as the debate raged more feverishly than ever.

Senior ministers were reported to be determined to tell Blair he must give a clear timetable for his departure while a survey found dozens of members of parliament from Blair's Labor Party wanted him to set out his exit plans at the party's annual conference later this month.

Blair returned from a Caribbean holiday determined to end discussion of when he will hand over power, a topic that fascinates British politicians and the media but which Blair allies see as damaging to the government.

In office for nine years, Blair has said he will not seek a fourth term and will give his successor, expected to be finance minister Gordon Brown, ample time to settle in before the next general election, expected in 2009.

Most members of the ruling Labor Party expect him to stand down as party leader and prime minister in 2007 or 2008. But, despite intense pressure, Blair, 53, has refused to announce a date publicly, believing it would turn him into a lame duck.

Blair dashed the hopes of many Labor members by insisting in an interview with The Times on Friday he had no intention of saying more about his future either before or during the Labor Party conference that opens on September 24.

"I've said I'm not going to go on and on and on ... Now at some point I think people have to accept that as a reasonable proposition and let me get on with the job," Blair said.

Some Labor members fear that if Blair doesn't give a timetable, it will hurt the party in Scottish, Welsh and English local authority elections next May.

Blair's popularity has plunged after a series of government scandals over sleaze and mismanagement, and controversy over the Iraq war. Opinion polls show Labor well behind the opposition Conservatives -- resurgent under youthful, pro-environment leader David Cameron.

Debate flares

If Blair hoped his statement would kill off the leadership debate, he was mistaken as it has flared with renewed vigor.

The Independent on Sunday newspaper said senior ministers planned to confront Blair at the next cabinet meeting over his refusal to commit to a departure timetable. Other reports said some Labor members of parliament were discussing signing an open letter pleading with Blair to say when he will step down.

BBC radio's "The World This Weekend" program polled rank-and-file Labor members of parliament and said 39 of the 68 who responded wanted Blair to set out a timetable at the party conference for standing down.

Paul Murphy, a Labor member of parliament from Wales, told the BBC it was very important to have clarity on the leadership question before the Welsh elections next May.

Allies of Blair and Brown, the powerful finance minister, battled it out in the newspapers.
Stephen Byers, a Blair ally and former cabinet minister, issued a thinly veiled challenge to Brown in the Sunday Telegraph to outline his vision of the Labor Party if he wanted to lead it.

Treasury minister Ed Balls, a close ally of Brown, wrote in The Observer that everyone in Labor had a responsibility to get the leadership transition right, suggesting that a lack of unity could play into the hands of the Conservatives.

(Chinadaily.com via agencies September 4, 2006)


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