Hoon casts doubt over Blair departure plans

Geoff Hoon has reignited the row over when Tony Blair steps down by questioning whether it was a good idea for him to remain prime minister until the spring.

The Europe minister implied Labour’s chances in the Scottish and Welsh elections in May would not be helped by a leader who was clearly in his final days of office.

The prime minister announced last week that he would quit within a year, and the statement – coupled with a declaration of support from his expected successor, Gordon Brown – has gone a long way to dampening speculation about his future.

But today’s intervention threatens to undermine that, and comes just ten days before the start of the Labour party conference, where the leadership issue is likely to dominate proceedings.

“Having set the outer limits of how long he is staying, that still leaves questions in the context of the elections in May,” Mr Hoon told London’s Evening Standard.

“A lot of people will be asking if it makes sense for him to carry on through those elections.”

He added: “It is a concern that if we were to lose badly in the local elections again, two years running, a lot of active Labour members would not be active by the time of the next general election.”

A Downing Street memo leaked to the media last week outlined how Mr Blair should quit while he was “on a high”, and “leave the crowds wanting more”.

Mr Hoon, who has stayed loyal to Mr Blair during the past few weeks of infighting, appeared to support this view but suggested the right time to quit might be sooner than the prime minister intends.

“The view among activists is that he should go out on a high. That should be a factor affecting his decision. He should do it while he’s still popular,” he said.

Despite the potential disruption Mr Hoon’s comment could cause, he made clear that he would like to see Mr Brown in No 10 after Mr Blair steps down.

The chancellor’s takeover of power has been a given for years, but left-wing MP John McDonnell has already launched his campaign for the Labour leadership, and education secretary Alan Johnson is also being viewed as a candidate.

But Mr Hoon said: “I think Gordon should be the next leader so we should think very carefully about who we want to be in place when we face our next poll test.”