- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007

LONDON — The first cracks in Cabinet support for Prime Minister Tony Blair have emerged, with senior ministers questioning whether he can remain in office for another five months without inflicting lasting damage on the Labor Party.

Mr. Blair’s defiant declaration Friday that he would not be hounded from office by a scandal over sales of knighthoods and other honors failed to stem growing pressure for him to quit before the midterm May elections.

Senior Labor members of Parliament have reported a collapse of morale within the party. The Daily Telegraph learned that at least three Cabinet ministers have been discreetly canvassing them about whether Mr. Blair should stay in office.

There are also reports that some senior Labor lawmakers are “actively encouraging” Cabinet ministers to wield the political dagger and allow Labor a fresh start under Gordon Brown.

Some wanted members of the Cabinet to urge Mr. Blair to quit “sooner rather than later,” Channel 4 News reported.

A poll released yesterday indicated that more than half of British voters believe Mr. Blair should leave office immediately.

The survey of 1,014 adults by ICM for the center-right Sunday Express newspaper suggested 56 percent of the public want Mr. Blair to quit now, while 37 percent back him to stay on.

Mr. Blair says he plans to step down this summer.

Some lawmakers said they thought the only way to dislodge Mr. Blair would be for the Cabinet to persuade him to go voluntarily and put the party’s interests before the desire to pass his 10th anniversary in office on May 2.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, said the Blair government was now “dysfunctional” and in a state of “paralysis.”

“It seems to me it’s got to that point where everyone in Parliament, everyone in government, everyone in the press, everyone in the country is thinking, ‘Hello? It’s over,’ ” he said.

The Conservative leader said that Mr. Blair was “losing it” and a “tipping point” had been reached.

In a highly charged interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today program Friday, Mr. Blair dismissed suggestions that he was distracted from his work by the cash-for-honors inquiry after it emerged that he had been questioned by police for a second time last week.

He refused to bring forward his plans to leave office, saying: “You will have to put up with me for a bit longer.”

But he appeared to acknowledge the damage the police inquiry was doing to his reputation, saying he was not going to “beg for my character in front of anyone.”

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat party leader, said he detected “resignation” in Mr. Blair’s voice.

Several other lawmakers said it was a low-key performance that reflected Mr. Blair’s disappointment that his premiership is drawing to an end under a cloud.

Environment Secretary David Miliband pleaded for Mr. Blair to be allowed to carry on, saying there was a British tradition “that you are innocent until proven guilty.”

But other Cabinet ministers are distancing themselves from Mr Blair.

Hazel Blears, the Labor Party chairman and minister without portfolio, acknowledged that the lengthy police investigation was creating “corrosive cynicism” that was damaging for the country.

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