Blair will quit ‘by next summer’

Tony Blair will announce his resignation in May next year and call an eight-week leadership contest before stepping down in July, it has been reported.

Downing Street has refused to confirm or deny the reports in The Sun – a newspaper that prides itself on its close links to the prime minister – saying it does not comment on “speculation”.

The story comes as a junior defence minister resigned from his job, saying it was no longer in the interests of the party and the country for Mr Blair to remain in office.

Tom Watson, MP for West Bromwich East, was one of 17 previously loyal Labour MPs who yesterday wrote to the prime minister calling for him to quit.

Yesterday, Mr Blair’s allies gave the clearest sign yet that he would leave Downing Street within a year.

Environment secretary David Miliband said yesterday morning that the “conventional wisdom” was that Mr Blair would leave within 12 months, comments widely seen as officially sanctioned by Downing Street.

Hours later, social exclusion minister Hilary Armstrong said: “The perceived wisdom.is that [Blair] acknowledges that by conference next year, there’ll be a new leader in place.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by the chairman of Labour’s national executive committee (NEC), Jeremy Beecham, who said that a new leader “would be in place for conference next year”.

Writing in the Independent this morning, work and pensions secretary John Hutton warned that Labour must “get away from this absurd soap opera” about a date for Mr Blair’s resignation, and focus on how the party would meet future challenges.

“It’s a huge turn-off for the country and a source of enormous frustration for most party members, who rightly think our focus should be on the country, not ourselves,” he wrote.

News of the letter calling on Mr Blair to resign came as a leaked memo revealed how the prime minister’s aides wanted him to leave office in a blaze of glory. Downing Street denied ever having seen the document.

Last night, another letter was being circulated in support of Mr Blair which expressed support for the timetable given by Mr Miliband, namely that the prime minister would quit within a year. More than 50 Labour MPs are thought to have signed it so far.

One of those, Karen Buck, told BBC Radio Four’s PM last night that the environment secretary’s comments were “welcome, and I understand that Number 10 are quite content with that”.

She urged her Labour colleagues to stop speculating, adding: “To me it seems pretty clear that he will be going next year.”

Two other letters are thought to be circulating Westminster calling for Mr Blair to set a definite timetable, although they have yet to be delivered. Reports suggest up to 100 MPs are calling for public confirmation that he will quit within a year.

However, in a sign that this will not be enough, John McDonnell, chairman of the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, said he believed the contest for the Labour leadership was now open and will launch his campaign tomorrow night.

John Burton, Mr Blair’s election agent in Sedgefield, told Today that he believed a leadership contest was inevitable, despite the widespread belief – which the prime minister has gone along with – that Gordon Brown will take over at No 10.