- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2005

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair urged his Labor Party to unite yesterday, reassuring lawmakers he would resign before the next election and confronting critics who blame him for a disappointingly slim margin of victory.

The closed-door meeting was Mr. Blair’s first battle with party rebels since last Thursday’s election, when an apparent voter backlash over the Iraq war reduced Labor’s majority in the 646-seat House of Commons from 161 to 67.

Loyalists thumped their desks in appreciation of Mr. Blair, but in an apparent sign of his vulnerability, Mr. Blair told legislators he would work toward a smooth and orderly transition for new leadership in the party.

In a political culture where the gentlemanly exit is not inconceivable, many are now asking not whether Mr. Blair will hand over the reins to his powerful and popular finance minister, Gordon Brown, but when.

“He has to give us a timetable,” Labor rebel Glenda Jackson said.

Another prominent rebel, Bob Marshall-Andrews, called Mr. Blair a liability and demanded that he quit before local elections in May 2006. “He is in a state of denial,” Mr. Marshall-Andrews said, not ruling out a direct leadership challenge.

Of the 23 legislators who spoke at yesterday’s meeting, only five were openly hostile to Mr. Blair, a Labor Party spokesman said. Most lawmakers were supportive of the prime minister as they left the meeting, considered an important barometer of the balance of power in the party.

Mr. Blair, who drew a standing ovation, told lawmakers they could win a fourth term if they united behind his plans to improve public services and other agenda points.

“Everyone who dared to say that Tony was less than perfect was shouted down,” said Labor legislator Ken Purchase. “On the back of a third Labor victory, it is not surprising that people feel pretty protective.”

Defense Minister John Reid said the dissenting voices were “faint and marginal.”

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