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Silent Blair faces revolt
- Juniors quit to step up pressure on departure date

London, Sept. 6: (AP): Prime Minister Tony Blair faced a growing revolt in his Labour Party today as seven junior members of his government quit to protest his refusal to let go of power.

The rebellion flared despite strong hints by senior ministers that Blair planned to step down within a year, and a news report claiming the departure date would be July 26. Though the lower-level revolt was unlikely to force Blair from office, it raised fears that the eventual change of command would be rancorous and messy.

“I no longer believe that your remaining in office is in the interest of either the party or the country,” Tom Watson, who was minister for veterans in the ministry of defence, said in a letter to the Prime Minister. He and the other rebels had previously signed a letter to Blair demanding that he resign “as a matter of urgency”.

Blair responded that he would have fired Watson if he had not quit, and warned that intraparty divisions would damage Labour’s efforts to hold onto office.

“To put (the party’s electoral success) at risk in this way is simply not a sensible, mature or intelligent way of conducting ourselves if we want to remain a governing party,” he wrote.

Pressure from within Labour for Blair to announce a timeframe for his departure has intensified in recent weeks. Legislators in closely contested districts, alarmed by the party’s falling behind the opposition Conservatives in opinion polls, fear they will lose their seats in the next election if questions about the leadership are not resolved soon.

Blair last week shrugged off demands that he announce his plans at Labour’s annual conference later this month.

He has promised only that he would not seek a fourth term in elections, expected in 2009, and would give his successor — widely expected to be treasury chief Gordon Brown — time to settle into office before that vote.

But his health secretary and close ally, Patricia Hewitt, said Blair “has made it clear that he will step down next year”.

“Everyone knows that the contest for the new leadership will take place next year,” she said. “It is madness for some Labour (lawmakers) to demand conditions from the Prime Minister.”

After Watson announced his resignation, six lawmakers who also serve as unpaid aides to government ministers quit rather than remove their names from the letter urging Blair to step aside. They were Khalid Mahmood, Wayne David, Ian Lucas, Mark Tami, David Wright and Chris Mole.

Blair made no immediate comment on the junior aides’ announcements, but called Watson’s decision to sign the letter circulating among Labour lawmakers “disloyal, discourteous and wrong”.

The Sun newspaper reported today that Blair intended to resign as leader of the governing Labour Party on May 31, triggering a leadership election likely to take around eight weeks. He would then be replaced as Prime Minister on July 26, the newspaper said. It cited no sources for its story.

Blair’s official spokesman declined to comment on the report, saying only that any leak to the newspaper had not been authorised by the Prime Minister’s office.

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