September 6, 2006

Blair “to be replaced” within a year

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) - Tony Blair will be replaced as British
Prime Minister by the end of July 2007, newspapers reported on
Wednesday, signaling the start of a leadership battle which
some fear may paralyze government for months.

Two senior ministers and Blair allies have said this week
they expect the prime minister to be gone within a year and the
pressure increased on Wednesday when a junior minister quit
over the uncertainty surrounding the departure date.

Finance Minister Gordon Brown is widely expected to succeed
Blair as leader of the Labour Party and the country, and
several leading political figures said it was vital the two men
map out a joint leadership plan.

Others insist there must be a full, open leadership contest
which would pit Brown against potential contenders. Some Labour
politicians want Blair to go now to avoid damaging the party's
reputation further.

Junior Defense Minister Tom Watson quit the government on
Wednesday telling Blair in a letter that the party needed a new
leader urgently to get itself in shape to win a fourth term.

"I share the view of the overwhelming majority of the party
and the country that the only way the party and the government
can renew itself in office is urgently to renew its
leadership," he said in the letter, distributed to British

Blair, 53, winner of a record three consecutive elections
for Labour, has seen his popularity dive after a series of
government scandals over sleaze and mismanagement, as well as
controversy over wars in Iraq and Lebanon.

Opinion polls put Labour well behind the opposition
Conservatives, who have been revived by their new, youthful,
pro-environment leader, David Cameron.


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 party leader.

Contenders cited as potential challengers to Brown include
Home Secretary John Reid, Education Secretary Alan Johnson and
Environment Secretary David Miliband.

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

Blair 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 leader in more than a century.

Pressure piled on him on Tuesday to name a departure date
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 up to
100 Labour parliamentarians could use Labour's annual
conference this month to demand Blair publicly confirm his exit

The Guardian newspaper, seen as the established voice of
the centre-left, also urged Blair to make a departure date

"There is a real danger that the whole mechanism of
government is being paralyzed," said Vincent Cable, spokesman
for economic affairs at Britain's Liberal Democrat Party.

"If you have a Prime Minister whose position is under a
great deal of uncertainty, the possibility of a protracted
leadership campaign, the country is rudderless and leaderless."

(Additional reporting by Peter Graff, Kate Holton and
Adrian Croft)