Blair warns MPs to stop ‘obsessing’ about his departure

Tony Blair has called on Labour MPs to stop “obsessing” about when he will step down and instead get on with running the country.

The prime minister used an interview in The Times to make clear that he had no intention of giving in to pressure from unions and backbenchers to give a clear timetable for his departure.

And he suggested that a “very significant number” of those calling for him to hand over power to his successor, widely expected to be Gordon Brown, were only doing so because they wanted to reverse the reforms of New Labour and return to the past.

“I think I have said enough for anyone reasonable to know I will do my best for the country and the party to make sure that when I do depart, it is done in a stable and sensible and orderly way, but in the meantime, to get on with the job as prime minister,” he said.

Speculation about when Mr Blair will leave Downing Street has escalated ahead of this month’s Labour party conference. If backbenchers decided to make a formal appeal for their leader to give a detailed timetable for his departure, it would be then.

Earlier this week, former minister Don Touhig warned that speculation about Labour’s leadership was “bleeding the heart” out of the party, and even loyal Blairites such as Tessa Jowell have acknowledged the “uncertainty” that existed about its future.

But Mr Blair told the newspaper: “I really think it is absurd for people who say we must stop this continual speculation about the leadership, continuing to speculate about it.

“I think if it is speculation that people are worried about, there is a simple answer – stop speculating. If what they are really worried about is timing, I think most of you can look at what I have said and draw conclusions about that.”

Mr Blair announced before the last election that he would not fight a fourth, but has rejected calls for details, saying a timetable would “paralyse” the government. He has only said his successor would have “ample time” to bed in before going to the polls.

Today the prime minister made clear he still believed he had much to do – last night he announced the start of a new strategy on social exclusion, while the next few months are also expected to see reforms on pensions, energy and the NHS.

But he warned: “If people want stable and orderly change, they should not keep obsessing about it in the meantime, but instead get on with the business of government.

“What will increase our problem in the polls is if people think that we’re either paralysed as a government or have run out of steam because we are debating this issue continually.”

Mr Blair said he had no intention of “going on and on”, and claimed the concerns of many of his critics were founded on a belief that New Labour reforms must be reversed.

“They don’t believe in the NHS reforms, the trust schools and the energy policy,” he said.

“We only won because we were a different type of Labour party. We must maintain that – New Labour is simply the name we gave to what was a different idea, which is a Labour party which is able to appeal to business as well as the unions, that stood for aspiration and ambition as well as simply compassion.”