Blair: Rebels are risking a fourth term

Tony Blair today warned Labour rebels they were risking electoral defeat, as one junior minister and six parliamentary aides quit over his continuing presence as leader.

Just minutes after defence minister Tom Watson announced his resignation, the prime minister issued a statement condemning him as “disloyal, discourteous and wrong”.

In a letter released to the press later, Mr Blair said that while he accepted Mr Watson’s concerns about Labour’s future, he went about expressing them the wrong way.

And in the face of continuing pressure for him to name the day when he will leave Downing Street, he warned Labour risked only hurting itself by such division.

“For the first time ever, we have the prospect not just of two but three successive full terms. To put all this at risk in this way is simply not a sensible, mature or intelligent way of conducting ourselves if we want to remain a governing party,” Mr Blair wrote.

Mr Watson was one of 17 formerly loyal Labour MPs who signed a letter earlier this week calling for Mr Blair to resign. The six parliamentary aides who also quit today were among the signatories.

In his resignation letter to the prime minister this morning, Mr Watson said his loyalty to the Labour party and its leader had been “absolute and unswerving”, adding that his pride in what the Labour government had achieved was “beyond expression”.

But he continued: “It is with the greatest sadness that I have to say that I no longer believe that your remaining in office is in the interest of either the party or the country.

“How and why this situation has arisen no longer matters. I share the view of the overwhelming majority of the party and the country that the only way the party and the government can renew itself in office is urgently to renew its leadership.

“For the sake of the legacy you have long said is the only one that matters – a renewed Labour party re-elected at the next general election – I urge you to reconsider your determination to remain in office.”

However, in a statement health secretary Patricia Hewitt said it was “madness” for Labour MPs to demand conditions from the prime minister, who had led them to three unprecedented election victories and made it clear he would step down next year.

“In the meantime, Tony Blair as leader and prime minister is entitled to expect at least as much loyalty and discipline as the next leader will rightly demand from the Labour party,” she said.

And in his letter to Mr Watson, the prime minister himself warned Labour “only came to power after putting behind it the divisive behaviour of the past and uniting around a modern vision for both country and party”.

The party would only win the next election by setting out its policy agenda for the future, combined with a “stable and orderly transition that leaves ample time for the next leader to bed in”, he stressed.