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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 May 2005, 15:44 GMT 16:44 UK
Has Blair seen off Labour critics?
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

If any of Tony Blair's backbench rebels believed the election result would produce a more conciliatory attitude towards them from the prime minister they must be a disappointed bunch.

Blair given rousing reception by new MPs

The prime minister approached the first session of the parliamentary Labour party in much the same mood as he handled his cabinet reshuffle - defiant.

He was given a rousing reception in a Commons committee room packed to bursting with MPs apparently overwhelmingly in support of his leadership.

And he made an unremittingly New Labour speech, reminding them they had won their historic third victory on the back of the government's successful economic record, and pledging to press ahead with public service reforms towards a fourth term.

But the 80 minute meeting saw a series of highly critical speeches from backbenchers including former ministers Frank Dobson and Michael Meacher.

They were joined by rebels Bob Marshall-Andrews, Glenda Jackson and Geraldine Smith. Leading dissidents Robin Cook and Clare Short were not called to speak.

In denial

The message from most was simple and direct - that Mr Blair was now an electoral liability and that he should go sooner rather than later.

Mr Meacher did not attack Mr Blair's leadership, but concentrated on urging a change in direction and style.

But all those who spoke agreed on one thing - their views were not listened to.

John  Reid
Reid said majority had spoken
Mr Marshall-Andrews suggested the prime minister was "in denial" and Mr Meacher said the prime minister's greatest problem was that he was not ready to countenance any other direction, suggesting to do so would let in the Tories.

The critics agreed that they had been given a pretty rough time by the overwhelmingly loyal audience who, according to one, shouted them down.

There were suggestions from some of the rebels that this was another orchestrated campaign against them in an attempt to stifle their opinions.

But others, Defence Secretary John Reid, for example, claimed the "silent majority" of Labour MPs had finally had enough of the rebels and were now loudly supporting the prime minister.

Real movement

So did any of this amount to anything? The short answer is probably "not much".

Those rebels who did speak mostly fell into the "usual suspects" category and have long wanted rid of Mr Blair.

However, contrary to some claims beforehand, they did turn up and they did speak in robust terms.

But, equally, this was not a case of the prime minister being given a roasting by MPs furious at the effect his leadership had wrought had on the government's, or their own majorities.

It is also fair to say that the real movement in the government is in the nine tenths below the surface - the movement between the political tectonic plates that are Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

The Brownites are keeping pretty quiet at the moment, leading to the belief they feel their time may soon be at hand.

Similarly it will be what the rebels actually do, rather that what they say at meetings, that matters more than ever.

If they won enough support to defeat a key part of the prime minister's parliamentary programme they may well yet have their scalp.

Perhaps the most significant thing was the remark by one loyal minister who said after the meeting that the prime minister would go at a time of his own choosing.

And that, he said, would be within 18 months at the most.

See Blair and Brown meeting their new MPs

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