Labour MPs call for Blair to quit

Seventeen Labour MPs have today sent a letter to Tony Blair calling on him to quit as prime minister.

Loyal Blairites Sion Simon, MP for Birmingham Erdington, and Chris Bryant, MP for Rhondda, are thought to be behind the document.

The news comes just hours after environment secretary David Miliband said he thought the prime minister would leave within the next 12 months.

And another letter is now being circulated expressing support for this tentative timetable, which Downing Street said had been signed by 49 Labour MPs.

Most of the MPs who signed the critical letter are thought to have joined the House of Commons following the 2001 general election. There are also reports of two other letters, one signed by MPs from the 2005 intake and another by ministerial aides.

Mr Blair was in York today to make a keynote speech on social exclusion, where his only reference to the continued speculation about his future was made in an aside about a seminar being held in his hotel.

The title of the meeting, he noted, was: “What leadership challenges remain for me?”

Mr Blair announced before the last general election that he would not fight a fourth, but has refused to set a timetable. On Friday, he made clear that he would not be making any announcement on the issue at the Labour party conference later this month.

This was intended to limit the speculation about his future but had the opposite effect, prompting a backlash from Labour backbenchers who warned that the party could not continue amid such uncertainty about its leadership.

Today’s letter reveals how serious the issue has become. However, Jeremy Beecham, chairman of Labour’s national executive committee (NEC), described it as “rather unfortunate and misconceived”.

He told BBC News 24 that Mr Blair was entitled to leave “in dignity, and I’m sure that is what will happen”, but warned that continued speculation was “unnecessary and a distraction”.

Responding to the reports this morning, Mr Miliband, a close ally of the prime minister, warned that Labour MPs had a responsibility to “ensure that there is a transition that is good for the country, to make sure that the country’s priorities come first”.

“The prime minister has made clear that he doesn’t, in the infamous Mrs Thatcher phrase, want to ‘go on and on and on’,” he told BBC Radio Four’s Today.

He added: “He is committed to giving his successor ample time. His successor I believe will be Gordon Brown, who I believe will be an excellent prime minister.

“We need a transition that is stable and orderly; a transition that gives energy and ideas and idealism to the party and gives ample time, which the prime minister has said.”

He called on the party to accept Mr Blair’s assurances about his departure, saying: “The conventional wisdom is that the prime minister sees himself carrying on for about another 12 months. It seems to me that the conventional wisdom is reasonable.”