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Blair's leadership goes into meltdown

Toby Helm / London Telegraph | September 7 2006

Supporters of Tony Blair challenged Gordon Brown last night to disown up to 100 Labour MPs who are demanding he quit Downing Street or challenge him directly for the leadership of the party.

Mr Blair wants the Chancellor to distance himself from what he believes is a coordinated "coup attempt" in return for bringing forward his preferred departure date next year.

On a day of near-meltdown in the Blair administration, which saw seven members of the Government resign, the Prime Minister refused to be bundled out of office by what his allies described as the "aggression" of the Brown camp.

Following a meeting at No 10 between the two men, which was described by sources as "hostile" and "appalling", Mr Blair's allies demanded that the Chancellor make clear in public that he had nothing to do with efforts in recent days by MPs and ministers to oust the Prime Minister.

Loyalists indicated that Mr Blair was challenging Mr Brown to try to "seize the crown", or back off and agree a smooth transition.

The Prime Minister will offer some concessions to the Chancellor today by publicly agreeing to bring forward his resignation date from late to early spring next year. His offer will be part of a deal in which the Chancellor condemns those lobbying for the Prime Minister's immediate removal.

A close ally of Mr Blair said last night that he was convinced the Brownites were coordinating moves to oust him. "The Prime Minister's view is that he is not the aggressor in this. It is therefore not up to him to clear it up," the ally said.

Another Blairite said: "The loyalties of these MPs who want the Prime Minister out are clear."

Supporters of the Chancellor insisted that the men's talks at No 10, which broke up at about 3.30pm, had been constructive.

A beaming Mr Brown was seen leaving in his ministerial car.

The latest row between the two came after Mr Blair's authority was severely undermined by the resignation of one minister and six junior members of the Government.

Tom Watson, an ally of Mr Brown, left his post at the Ministry of Defence after signing, along with 16 other MPs, a letter demanding Mr Blair's immediate resignation.

Mr Watson told Mr Blair in a resignation letter that he had been a loyal supporter of Labour all his life. But he no longer believed that it was in the best interests of the party or country for him to remain in office.

"I share the view of the overwhelming majority of the party that the only way the party and Government can renew itself in office is urgently to renew its leadership," Mr Watson wrote.

Mr Blair immediately replied, accusing Mr Watson of being "disloyal, discourteous and wrong".

Suspicions among Blairites that they are victims of a coordinated coup attempt hardened when Doug Henderson, an ex-minister and hardline supporter of the Chancellor, went on BBC radio to demand Mr Blair quit in the autumn.

Rejecting the idea of a resignation in May next year, or later, as the "worst possible date" Mr Henderson said: "There should be a new leader in place by the end of March well before local elections and mid-term polls in Scotland and Wales."

Mr Brown has remained silent throughout this latest crisis over the future of the Prime Minister.

Mr Blair's problems deepened as some of his previous allies in Cabinet hinted that they were ready to jump ship to the Brown camp.

David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, wrote in an article in the New Statesman that Mr Brown was the only person would could reunite and reinvigorate the party.

Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, while condemning rebel MPs, also sought to build bridges to the Brown camp by saying it would be "madness" to try to tie the Chancellor to a Blairite policy agenda.

Yesterday, it also emerged that trades union leaders are planning to demand Mr Blair's swift resignation when they meet for the annual TUC Congress in Brighton next week.

Union sources believe Mr Blair will be jeered by delegates unless he uses his speech to Congress, and a separate question and answer session with delegates, to make clear he will be on his way soon.

David Blunkett, the former home secretary, appealed to the Chancellor and his supporters to calm down backbenchers.

"It is now in Gordon Brown's – and the Labour Party's – best interests for those seeking the Prime Minister's immediate departure to back off," he said.

"This is not only to avoid our opponents exploiting the impression of disintegration and division but also to avoid the split of our party which would have lasting consequences."

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