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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 September 2006, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
Will Blair and Brown get their way?
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Tony Blair wants to go on for another year and Gordon Brown is still determined to succeed him - but is the Labour party now in any mood to give their two biggest beasts what they want?

Tony Blair
Blair still under pressure for a resignation date
As the full impact of 24 hours of frantic manoeuvring, speculation and plotting by all sides in the leadership soap opera began to sink in, a fresh round of wrangling kicked off.

Senior party figures were openly arguing over whether the prime minister should be allowed to stay for another 12 months or be forced out, in a Thatcher-style coup, much sooner.

And the prime minister suffered his first ministerial resignation over the issue as once arch-loyalist Tom Watson quit, insisting the prime minister should now follow suit for the good of the party and the country.

Mr Blair later said he had intended sacking him anyway over his "disloyal, discourteous and wrong" behaviour in signing a letter calling for his resignation.

The fact that he did not sack him instantly and then suffered a seriously damaging resignation instead speaks volumes about the current state of his authority and standing in the party.

And that blow was swiftly followed by the inevitable resignations of six other parliamentary secretaries - the most junior members of government - who had also signed the rebel letter.

Meanwhile, other figures, led by pensions secretary John Hutton and Mr Blair's agent John Burton, were encouraging the view that there would be a serious, cabinet level challenge to Mr Brown and that the Chancellor's succession was in no way a foregone conclusion.

Many Labour MPs certainly now believe they may be able to force the prime minister to publicly announce a timetable for his departure, possibly at the party conference in Manchester in three weeks' time.

But they also believe the departure date of 31 May, suggested by the Sun newspaper, is only the last possible date by which Mr Blair could stand down.

Local elections

It seems a perfectly logical time scale if, as declared by Blair allies, he plans to be gone by this time next year.

He would probably not want to go during the long summer parliamentary recess, so would have to have made his announcement by the end of the session, traditionally the last week of July, having given time for a leadership election before then.

Gordon Brown
Brown may face a serious challenge
So, whether the date now being talked about is "official" or not, it is a reasonable working hypothesis.

But there is already pressure for the prime minister to go long before then - even by Christmas - with claims that he is in danger of turning November's Queen's Speech, setting out his government's forthcoming programme, into an irrelevance and damaging the party's prospects in difficult local and regional elections next May.

Mr Blair, they point out, will not be in power to push through any of the measures he announces in the Queen's speech, and only a new leader can avert election disaster, particularly in Scotland and Wales.

All this will be manna from heaven for the opposition parties who will spend all their time between any resignation announcement and Mr Blair's actual departure writing him off as a dead man walking - precisely why he had wanted to avoid any such announcement in the first place.

They will claim he is leader and prime minister in name only while all eyes will be focused on where the new centre of power really lies.

Stop Gordon

Once it was almost universally accepted that would be Gordon Brown. But, while the chancellor may still be the favourite, the desperate search for a Blairite candidate to take him on will move into top gear, with Home Secretary John Reid and Environment Secretary David Miliband the names on many lips.

John McDonnell
McDonnell has ensured leadership contest
That, needless to say, is exactly why Mr Brown's troops do not want the prime minister to delay his departure, fearing he is out to stop their man, but want a swift handover.

Thanks to left-winger John McDonnell, there is guaranteed to be a leadership contest. Mr Brown is confident he can see off the challenge from Mr McDonnell and, in the process, legitimise his leadership.

But the chancellor's supporters are furious at any suggestion that the Blairites are plotting to find an "anybody but Gordon" candidate who might give him a real run for his money.

They already want to hear a timetable from the prime minister's own lips before they believe it, and are unlikely to be satisfied with a 12 month deadline.

Although there are some, including critical backbencher Glenda Jackson, who had been demanding a resignation timetable who believe they have now, in effect, got what they wanted and will be happy to leave it at that.

The early indications, however, are that this storm has not yet blown itself out but shows worrying signs of raging right through the Manchester conference and beyond.

And it looks highly debateable whether the end of Tony Blair's reign in Downing Street will be marked with the orderly and stable transition of power he has so often spoken of.

Nick.Assinder-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk




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