By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 8, 2006
LONDON, May 7 -- Prime Minister Tony Blair, battered over his Iraq policy and a series of scandals in his cabinet, is facing a growing revolt within his Labor Party as scores of Labor members of Parliament demand that he set a date to step aside.
"I have a job for him: ambassador to Outer Mongolia," said Robert Wareing, a Labor member of Parliament for 23 years. He said "a very strong feeling" in the party that Blair should go has increased since Labor's dismal third-place showing in local elections Thursday. The future of the Blair government, the Bush administration's closest European ally, suddenly appears more shaky and uncertain. Blair, who was already suffering low approval ratings and rebellion among some factions of his party after nine years in office, is facing sharp, new attacks since the election and a controversial cabinet reshuffle Friday.
A BBC survey Sunday found that 52 of 172 Labor members of Parliament questioned said Blair should resign within a year. Labor MPs interviewed said a large number of their colleagues, many of whom have been Blair supporters in the past, are endorsing a letter demanding that Blair announce a timetable for stepping down.
"He said he's going to go. We just want to know when he's going to go. It's a reasonable request," said Ian Gibson, a Labor MP who said between 50 and 100 Labor MPs think Blair should say when he is going to leave office. Labor has 353 members in the 646-seat House of Commons.
Blair, who was elected to a third term last year, has said he would not seek a fourth term in elections that must be held by 2010, but he has not said when he would step aside. His approval ratings have fallen to just over 30 percent, and recent polls show that nearly half the public wants him to resign this year.
Blair has been criticized for his support for the Iraq war and his close relationship with President Bush. Many Labor members say Blair has led Labor too far to the political right and abandoned its traditional working- and middle-class base.
Allegations that the Labor Party was offering seats in the upper house of Parliament in exchange for campaign contributions is only one of the recent scandals added to Blair's problems. Friday, Blair fired Home Secretary Charles Clarke after damaging disclosures that more than 1,000 foreigners who committed crimes in Britain were set free rather than considered for deportation after finishing their sentences. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who has become the subject of jokes in the country after he admitted to having sex with his former secretary in his government office, remains in his job but with reduced responsibilities.
The poor showing in local elections has led many Labor members to say that Blair's government has been wounded beyond repair -- and that he must set the stage for a transition for the good of the party.
"The message is coming from the electorate: The issue for people is Blair," said Glenda Jackson, a Labor MP and critic of Blair. "He is arrogant and out of touch with ordinary people. It's time for him to understand the damage he is doing to the party and give us a timetable for his departure."
Long-simmering divisions within the party burst into painful public view Friday, when Blair undertook the most extensive cabinet reshuffle since he came to power in 1997. Party members said Blair was attempting to surround himself with proven loyalists while purging those seen as closer to his presumed successor, Exchequer Chancellor Gordon Brown, including Jack Straw, who was fired as foreign secretary.
In a BBC interview Sunday, Brown said: "What I want, what Tony Blair wants, what I think the vast majority of the public will want, is a stable and orderly transition."
Brown did not call for Blair to step aside, but Labor Party members said his repeated references to "renewal" and "transition" were remarkably pointed signals from a man who weighs his public statements with great caution.
Blair's most vigorous defense came Sunday from John Reid, a close ally who was shifted on Friday from defense secretary to home secretary, the official in charge of all domestic security issues.
"Those people who are trying to shove Blair out, change the direction, use the situation to put us back to old Labor, they're not going to win," Reid said to the BBC. "There is no going back for this party."
Reid said that forcing Blair to name a date for his exit would be a "huge advantage" for the rival Conservative Party, which is hoping to take back control of the government under its new, 39-year-old leader, David Cameron. Although several former Blair allies are involved in the uprising against him, Reid said that much of the dissent comes from the "old Labor" left wing, which has long disagreed with Blair's more centrist leadership.
"To force Tony Blair out, to stop the reform program, to start to move back to old Labor, any one of those would be a disaster," Reid said. "Taken together, they would be a catastrophe for this party."