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Labour legislators’ letter urges Blair to set date

 (The Spokesman-Review)
Blair (The Spokesman-Review)

LONDON – 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 said Sunday.

The letter, addressed to Labour’s executive committee, was widely reported in the British media Sunday, two days after Blair’s 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 Thursday in local government elections nationwide. Labour polled 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 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.

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 said on condition of anonymity. “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.”

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

But the Sunday Telegraph newspaper published what it said was the 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 said. “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 BBC television, referring to Blair’s Labour opponents.

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 said.


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