New Labour MPs to call on Blair to quit
PM faces pressure from ex-loyalists
Patrick Wintour, political editor
Tuesday September 5, 2006
Tony Blair's position has been further undermined by the drafting of a private letter from a majority of the 2001 intake of Labour MPs urging him to resign.
The letter has been coordinated by two formerly ardent Blairite MPs, Sion Simon and Chris Bryant. Its contents were being kept secret yesterday. However, its existence suggests the prime minister is by no means free from the political pressure that grew last week for him to stand down before his preferred, though unstated, private date of 2007.
It is understood the letter was organised at the weekend in the wake of Mr Blair's decision to announce that he would not give to the Labour conference this month a date, or timetable for his departure. It was not clear last night whether the letter had been sent.
Last night, the BBC reported that a second, similar letter from the 2005 intake was being prepared. Others may be being drafted in what could be seen as a pincer movement against the prime minister.
Mr Simon refused to comment yesterday, saying: "If such a confidential letter existed, its existence and contents would remain confidential." Mr Bryant was not available last night. However, one of the MPs involved in the letter said: "If the prime minister has decided that to set a timetable will undermine his authority, and his authority is already undermined, the obvious thing is for him to go now."
A total of 38 Labour MPs were elected for the first time in 2001. Not all of them have signed the letter, but No 10 will have been struck that it has been organised by two MPs who had seemed to be an integral part of the New Labour project.
Critics will claim the signatories are disappointed MPs who failed to achieve ministerial office, and may hope for preferment under the premiership of Gordon Brown. The impact may depend on the numbers of signatories. If 80 MPs rallied behind a call for a leadership election, the ballot would go ahead under party rules.
Mr Simon, the MP for Birmingham Erdington and a journalist, has supported many of Mr Blair's most controversial policies, including the Iraq war, student top-up fees, anti-terror laws and identity cards. But at the weekend he warned of New Labour complacency and said: "Except for serving ministers, I do not know a single Labour member or supporter who thinks it is in the public interest for us to carry on like this any longer."
Mr Bryant, the MP for Rhondda and an advocate of an elected second chamber, recently resigned as private parliamentary secretary to the constitutional affairs secretary, Lord Falconer.
Mr Blair was yesterday on a two-day tour to highlight the government's fight against social exclusion. It will culminate in a speech at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in York today designed to show his commitment to core Labour issues. It will come on the day that the former home secretary Charles Clarke sets out his criticisms of New Labour in his first major speech since leaving the cabinet.
At the weekend, cabinet support for Mr Blair's stance did not seem to erode, and it was agreed that his supporters should participate in the debate about the party's future with policy speeches.
In a further development yesterday, the education secretary, Alan Johnson, pointedly refused to rule himself out as a candidate for the Labour leadership. He has already said he will be a candidate for the deputy leadership when Mr Blair and his deputy, John Prescott, stand down.
Mr Johnson yesterday strongly defended the prime minister's decision not to set a date for his resignation, saying he believed the party understood that it would be "a gift to the opposition parties".
Mr Blair might travel to Israel as early as this weekend in an attempt to play a role in restarting Palestinian peace talks. Reports from Jerusalem said he would be meeting the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, on Saturday, but Downing Street declined to confirm this. The prime minister's spokesman said: "A visit is not an end in itself. A visit would be to try to get people to start the process of re-engagement. The ambition is no higher than that."