Britain's Blair faces calls from party leaders to resign as he pushes for reforms
May 09, 2005 2:16 PM EDT
LONDON - Prime Minister Tony Blair faced calls from Labour Party legislators Monday to step down, just days after securing a historic third term that was dampened by a sharply reduced majority in Parliament.
The emerging schism in the governing Labour party reflects the unease in Britain over Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq and the possibility of a leadership challenge well before he serves out his term.
"We have won three terms; we have got to be immensely grateful to Tony for that. But we have got to look forward, not back," said Labour lawmaker Ian Davidson.
There were no signs that Blair would be bullied into quitting. After a Cabinet reshuffle on Friday, he reorganized his junior ministers on Monday. He was to address legislators in special meeting on Wednesday.
Calling for unity, allies of the prime minister urged lawmakers to focus on the government's program of improving health care and education.
"These are the big agenda items, not internal voices squabbling about a future leadership succession when actually we have just won an historic third term," said Northern Ireland and Wales Secretary Peter Hain.
Blair is the first Labour leader to win three consecutive elections. But his triumph was tarnished when the government's majority in the 646-seat House of Commons was slashed from 161 to 67.
A disaffected rump of the party has long been unhappy with Blair's leadership and angry that he ditched much of Labour's socialist ethos to woo big business and the middle class vote.
Calls for Blair to quit are commonplace among a hardcore group of rebels. But the disappointing election result has increased the number of lawmakers ready to speak out.
Some insist he should go immediately. Others believe he should step down within two years, to give his successor time to prepare for elections. Blair has said he wants to serve a full third term, until 2009 or 2010, before he steps aside.
"Anybody who has spoken with voters on the doorsteps knows that Labour won despite Tony Blair," said Mark Seddon, a member of Labour's ruling executive. "They (Labour members) would like him to leave with dignity, but would like to know there is some kind of timetable."
Labour lawmaker John Austin said Blair may face a leadership challenge if he tries to hang on for too long.
"I think I, and many colleagues think, it would be better if he went sooner rather than later, to allow his successor to establish himself," he said.
Blair's likely successor is Treasury chief Gordon Brown, a powerful and popular figure within the party. Rivalry between the two men is intense and Brown is said to jealously covet the premiership.
Brown served as a vital crutch throughout the election campaign for Blair, whose credibility was damaged by the Iraq war. That loyalty appears to be holding.
Brown commands his own tribe of loyalists within the party, who have been known to brief against the prime minister on Brown's behalf. Since the election result, however, they have been silent.
"You can't get refreshment and new thinking when an old leader hangs on and clings on," said former Cabinet minister Clare Short, who says Blair has become a liability.
Blair appointed three key allies in his Cabinet reshuffle on Friday, bringing back former home secretary David Blunkett and promoting modernizers David Milburn and John Hutton. He appointed more than 90 junior and middle-ranking ministers as he completed his government team Monday - a lineup that included allies of both Blair and Brown.
Former Immigration Minister Beverley Hughes, who resigned last year amid claims that migrants from Bulgaria and Romania were exploiting lax British entry controls, was brought back as children's minister. In an apparently conciliatory move, former Health Minister Lord Hunt, who quit over the Iraq war, was appointed as minister in the work and pensions department.
Blair loyalists insisted it was business as usual.
"Those who write him off today are doing so very, very prematurely," said Blair's former director of communications Alastair Campbell.
Blair's position has temporarily been strengthened by unrest in the main opposition Conservative Party, which must choose a new leader after Michael Howard announced he would step down.
Howard, who campaigned aggressively on core issues such as immigration and lower taxation, managed to boost the party's seat tally in Parliament. But he didn't do enough to attract new voters and the election result has prompted a soul searching debate about how the party must modernize.
Two senior figures, environment and transport spokesman Tim Yeo and defense spokesman Nicholas Soames, said Monday they were quitting their posts so they could contribute to the debate more freely.
Yeo said the Conservatives must "talk more about compassion and social justice and individual liberty" and hinted that he would stand for leader when Howard quit.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved.