Blair attempts to return to business

Tony Blair is today beginning a two-day tour to look at local efforts to tackle social exclusion, as he attempts to regain the initiative after a weekend of Labour infighting.

The prime minister is due to make a major speech on the issue tomorrow, where he will expand his proposals for targeting help and sanctions against families whose children are likely to grow up to become a “menace to society”.

But the policy has already been dismissed as Nazi-style “eugenics” by former Labour minister Tony Benn, and a vigorous debate about Labour’s future – particularly that of Mr Blair – threatens to overshadow the whole initiative.

The speculation, which had been muted during the summer recess, was reignited this weekend following the prime minister’s announcement on Friday that he would not be discussing his resignation at this month’s Labour party conference.

Labour MPs responded angrily to his comments, and a survey for BBC Radio Four’s The World This Weekend yesterday found that of the 68 Labour MPs who responded, 39 want him to reveal his plans at the conference in Manchester.

Asked what timetable he should give for his departure, 40 of the backbenchers said he should quit Downing Street immediately or within the next year.

Yesterday, ministers called for calm. Social exclusion minister Hilary Armstrong, the former chief whip and ally of the prime minister, told BBC One’s Sunday AM that Labour must not “retreat into ourselves”.

“The real test is for the party in how it handles the transition. But it should handle the transition knowing that it is no good us retreating into ourselves – we have got to be out there with the public understanding what their anxieties are right across the board,” she said.

Work and pensions secretary John Hutton, another Blair ally, issued a statement demanding that senior Labour figures show “leadership” and “move on” from the constant speculation about the prime minister’s future.

“As the parliamentary term begins, those that have the privilege to sit in cabinet have to offer leadership to refocus the Labour Party on the political challenges ahead,” he added.

However, the divisions between supporters of Mr Blair and Gordon Brown, who is expected to take over at No 10, emerged during the process.

Writing in Sunday Times, Blairite Alan Milburn called for a debate about Labour’s future, saying: “The priority now is to determine Labour’s post-Blair purpose and policy.”

But Ed Balls, the economic secretary to the Treasury and Mr Brown’s closest ally, slapped this idea down, writing in The Observer: “The idea that we need a period of opposition or internal navel-gazing in which to renew is absurd.”

Defence secretary Des Browne added: “The idea that there is some fundamental difference in ideals and values in the mainstream of our party is just fanciful.”