| Blair: Cornered
London, July 1: Tony Blair faced fresh pressure from formerly loyal cabinet colleagues to organise a swift handover of power after a set of disastrous byelection results demoralised his party yesterday.
Labour suffered the double humiliation of failing to regain its former South Wales stronghold of Blaenau Gwent and of being beaten into fourth place behind the UK Independence Party as the Tories held Bromley and Chislehurst in southeast London.
While Labour’s high command desperately tried to draw comfort from a poor performance by the Conservatives in Bromley ' a 13,342 Tory majority was slashed to 633 as the Liberal Democrats surged ' the results triggered another rash of demands for Blair to go soon.
Ian McCartney, a trade minister who lost his cabinet post as party chairman in Blair’s last reshuffle, argued that Labour had “no time to lose” in its pursuit of a new sense of purpose and said it had to resist further moves to the Right.
Echoing comments from Charles Clarke, the recently sacked home secretary, who said this week that Blair had lost his direction, McCartney told Labour’s National Policy Forum it was “time to move forward with a renewed sense of purpose and direction... Let’s start this weekend. We have no time to lose.”
A majority of cabinet ministers now believe that Blair will harm his reputation and the Labour Party if he carries on as leader past the spring of next year.
Hazel Blears, McCartney’s successor as party chairman, claimed the Blaenau Gwent result showed Labour “was going in the right direction”.
The winning independent, Dai Davis, had a majority of 2,484 over Owen Smith, the Labour candidate, compared to the 9,121 majority of his predecessor Peter Law at the last general election.
She described the outcome in Bromley and Chislehurst as a “disaster” for the Tories.
Alan Johnson, the education secretary, who has said he wants to be deputy leader when Blair and John Prescott leave office, said: “We need new ideas, fresh initiatives and renewal in government, but it has to build on where we are now ' a party proud of its record in government, firmly based on the Centre-Left and able to appeal in all constituencies across the UK.
Cameron said he was “delighted” to have won a byelection but admitted he was “disappointed” the margin had not been bigger in Bromley.
Francis Maude, the Tory party chairman, conceded the Bromley result was a “wake-up call” which showed the party had not yet convinced the public it had gone far enough with its reforms.
“We have to drive that change faster, wider and deeper,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, who has had an unconvincing start as party leader, said the Bromley result showed the Lib Dems were capable of challenging both the Tories and Labour in their traditional heartlands.
Blair attempted to shrug off recent criticism by stressing that Labour should have confidence in its handling of the economy and public healthcare.