- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2006

LONDON — Seven junior members of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government resigned yesterday to protest his refusal to leave office as calls for the British leader to announce when he will step aside gained momentum.

The rebellion in Mr. Blair’s Labor Party flared despite strong hints by senior ministers that Mr. Blair planned to step down within a year, and a press report saying the departure date would be July 26.

Though the lower-level revolt was unlikely to force Mr. Blair from office, it raised fears that the eventual change of command will be rancorous and messy.

“I no longer believe that your remaining in office is in the interest of either the party or the country,” Tom Watson, who was minister for veterans in the Ministry of Defense, said in a letter to the prime minister. He and other Labor Party members had signed another letter to Mr. Blair demanding that he step aside as prime minister.

Mr. Blair responded that he would have fired Mr. Watson if he hadn’t quit and warned that intraparty divisions would damage Labor’s effort to hold on to office.

“To put [the party’s electoral success] 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,” he wrote.

Pressure from within the Labor Party for Mr. Blair to announce a time frame for his departure has intensified in recent weeks.

Legislators in closely contested districts, alarmed that the party is falling behind the opposition Conservatives in opinion polls, fear they will lose their seats in the next election, expected in 2009, if the leadership question isn’t resolved soon.

Mr. Blair last week shrugged off demands that he announce his plans at the Labor Party’s annual conference later this month. He has been reluctant to set a specific time frame for his resignation, fearing it would make him an instant lame duck, draining his remaining authority and power.

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