September 6, 2006

UK’s PM Blair urged to confirm exit date

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) - Tony Blair will end his premiership on
July 26 next year, British newspapers reported on Wednesday,
but must confirm this date publicly if he is to stem a revolt
by frustrated members of his ruling Labour party.

Newspapers splashed Summer 2007 departure dates across
their front pages, saying Blair had caved in to increasing
pressure from Labour parliamentarians who had demanded a clear

The Sun tabloid said Blair would step down as Labour leader
on May 31 -- less than a month after his tenth anniversary in
office -- and would resign as prime minister eight weeks later
after an election to choose a new party leader, expected to be
his finance minister, Gordon Brown.

The Daily Telegraph hailed the start of "the long goodbye."

Blair's Downing Street office described the reports as
"speculation," but did not deny them.

Blair, winner of a record three consecutive elections for
Labour, has already said he will not stand for a fourth term.

His popularity has plunged after a series of government
scandals over sleaze and mismanagement, as well as controversy
over the Iraq war. Opinion polls put Labour well behind the
opposition Conservatives, who have been revived by their new,
youthful, pro-environment leader, David Cameron.

Blair has said he would leave "ample" time for a transition
to his successor, but has angered many in his party by refusing
to name a departure date.

Pressure piled on him on Tuesday after a number of
once-loyal Labour members of parliament signed a letter calling
on him to step down.

Media reports said the letter's signatories believe as many
as 100 more Labour parliamentarians could join forces with them
at Labour's annual conference at the end of September and
demand Blair publicly confirm his departure date.

The left-leaning Guardian newspaper urged Blair to make his
departure date official.

"Tony Blair urgently needs to reassure both the Labour
party and the country that he is not living in a fantasy
world," it wrote in an editorial. "Mr Blair cannot long
continue as prime minister without saying something much more
explicit and much more politically realistic and modest about
his plans."

Blair, 53, won his first term on May 1, 1997. A decade in
power would leave him more than a year short of Margaret
Thatcher's record as the longest-serving prime minister in more
than a century.

While Brown is widely expected to take over as his
successor, party officials insist there must be a proper
election and commentators say other potential contenders
include Home Secretary John Reid and Education Secretary Alan

John Burton, Blair's constituency agent and one of his
longest-standing political friends, told BBC radio on Wednesday
an open leadership contest was vital for Labour's future.