Prime Minister Tony Blair faced a growing revolt in his Labour Party Wednesday as seven junior members of his government quit to protest his refusal to say when he'll let go of power.
The rebellion flared despite strong hints by senior ministers that Blair planned to step down within a year, and a news report claiming the departure date would be July 26. Though the lower-level revolt was unlikely to force 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 the other rebels had previously signed a letter to Blair demanding that he announce a departure date.
Blair responded that he would have fired Watson if he hadn't quit and warned that intraparty divisions would damage Labour's effort to hold onto 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 Labour for Blair to announce a timeframe for his departure has intensified in recent weeks. Legislators in closely contested districts, alarmed by the party's falling behind the opposition Conservatives in opinion polls, fear they will lose their seats in the next election if questions about the leadership aren't resolved soon.
Blair last week shrugged off demands that he announce his plans at Labour's annual conference later this month.
After Watson's announcement, six lawmakers who serve as unpaid aides to government ministers quit rather than remove their names from the letter urging Blair to say when he'll step aside.
Khalid Mahmood, Wayne David, Ian Lucas, Mark Tami, David Wright and Chris Mole had all held unpaid posts as Parliamentary private secretaries.
Blair made no immediate comment on the junior aides' announcements but called Watson's decision to sign the letter circulating among Labour lawmakers "disloyal, discourteous and wrong."
The Sun newspaper reported Wednesday that Blair intends to resign as leader of the governing Labour party on May 31, triggering a leadership election likely to take around eight weeks. He would then be replaced as prime minister on July 26, the newspaper said.
Blair's official spokesman declined to comment on the report, saying only that any leak to the newspaper had not been authorized by the prime minister's office.
The Sun cited no sources for its story. The paper, owned by Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate News Corp., has been a crucial supporter of Blair since he took office in 1997.
As if to emphasize that Blair is still prime minister, his office announced Wednesday that he plans to visit the Middle East soon in an effort to promote peace in Lebanon and between Israelis and Palestinians. There was no word on precisely where or when Blair would go.
The Sun chastised Labour Party lawmakers who are demanding that the prime minister step aside more quickly, saying they were flirting with electoral self-destruction.
"Childish (legislators) hounding Tony Blair must grow up and shut up," the paper said in an editorial. "You are committing an act of madness which will destroy your party. If you really love Labour, leave Tony Blair alone to finish the job."
Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton called for an end to the widespread speculation about when Blair will leave office.
Blair said in October 2004 that he would not seek a fourth term and later promised to give his successor — widely expected to be Treasury chief Gordon Brown — time to settle into office before elections likely to be held in 2009. Blair led his party to its third straight win at the polls last year, although voters sharply reduced Labour's majority in Parliament.
Blair has been reluctant to set a specific timeframe for his resignation, fearing it would make him an instant lame duck, draining his remaining authority and power.
But two members of his Cabinet said Tuesday it was likely he would leave office some time next year, a move interpreted in some quarters as a Downing Street-sanctioned attempt to placate party critics.
"The perceived wisdom, although I might have advised something differently, is that he acknowledges that by (the Labour Party conference in September 2007), there'll be a new leader in place," Social Exclusion Minister Hilary Armstrong told the BBC.
The Daily Mirror tabloid reported Tuesday that Blair's advisers were planning the details of his final weeks in office, but the paper did not specify when that might occur. A national tour and a host of TV appearances are in the works to create a triumphant end to Blair's years as prime minister, according to a memo purportedly leaked to the paper.