London, June 28: Tony Blair is ready to announce that he will step down next year, probably around his 10th anniversary in Downing Street in May.
Senior Blairite MPs said that high-level discussions were going on to prepare for a transition to an expected Gordon Brown premiership.
If Blair announced a timetable at or shortly before Labour’s annual conference at the end of September it would defuse the growing restlessness in the party over the succession.
Blair could use the conference to acclaim his record while paving the way for a new leader to take on the challenge of the rejuvenated Conservative Party led by David Cameron.
Yesterday the Prime Minister brushed aside Charles Clarke’s accusation that the government was lacking leadership and direction.
He described the former home secretary as “a disappointed man” and rejected claims that the attack could hasten his exit from No 10.
He described it as “surface noise” that governments always faced.
“What we should do is just calm down, hold and get on with governing,” he said.
Labour MPs feel certain that Blair has made up his mind to go next spring. Everybody at No 10 believes that he will be gone within a year and acknowledges that power and authority is haemorrhaging away.
In the past week the Chancellor has openly assumed the mantle of prime minister-in-waiting, announcing the updating of the independent nuclear deterrent and reopening a EU budget deal struck by Blair last December that he regards as “bad” for Britain.
Blair’s inner circle hopes that when the Prime Minister makes clear his intention to go Brown will back Blairite reforms and urge his supporters to stop trying to accelerate a takeover at No 10.
Blair has admitted that it was a mistake to announce two years ago that he would not serve a fourth term and has been resisting naming a specific date for going because of fears that it would weaken his position further.
His supporters now think that it could be even more destabilising if he continues to keep his party guessing.
Some acknowledge that there is a risk he will become a lame duck, with pressure for him to go immediately once he has confirmed that he will step down next year.
But they think that Brown and most MPs will go along with a leadership handover next year once Blair has publicly confirmed his intentions.
At Westminster there was little sign of any heavyweight support for Clarke, who used a series of interviews to make plain his anger over his dismissal as home secretary and suggested that Blair might not be able to recover from recent blows to his authority.
Clarke is the most senior Blairite to become publicly disloyal ' and, even more significant, to begin the process of defecting to the Brown camp.
He effectively endorsed the Chancellor, a former sworn enemy, saying that he would be “happy” to see him installed as Prime Minister. Brown has made clear that he would welcome Clarke into a top domestic policy job in his first cabinet.