A wounded Tony Blair has bought himself a little more time in Downing Street by promising to stand down as Prime Minister by next summer.
But he refused to announce the firm timetable demanded by some Labour MPs and his statement failed to satisfy critics, who predicted he would fail to complete 10 years in No 10 by remaining until next May.
Only a week after insisting he would say no more about his exit strategy, Mr Blair was forced to pledge that the Labour conference in two weeks' time would be his last as leader. He apologised for the chaos of recent days and warned his party that it could not "treat the public as irrelevant bystanders in a subject as important as who is their Prime Minister". Although Mr Blair insisted Labour would now "move on", there are grave doubts he will be able to recover his authority after what he saw as an attempted coup by supporters of Gordon Brown, when eight junior members of the Government resigned on Wednesday.
Mr Blair's decision to shift his ground headed off moves to depose him within days. A "go now" message, which a delegation of senior Labour figures had planned to deliver to him, was put on hold. But last night his critics said his statement had changed nothing. There was speculation that Labour's backbench leaders would tell him to quit soon after the Commons returns in a month's time.
Blair allies denied he had been bounced into a U-turn, saying he had planned to announce this would be his last Labour conference in his speech to the Manchester event, and that he would have told the Cabinet that next week. They dismissed reports that he would announce next February his intention to depart and then resign as Labour leader on 4 May - halfway through a four-year parliament and the day after elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English councils. His successor would then be elected by mid- June.
Such a timetable may be in Mr Blair's mind but it looks an ambitious one. Brownites described it as an "upper limit", and hope the Chancellor will take over before the May elections.
After heated exchanges between Mr Blair and Mr Brown on Wednesday, tempers cooled yesterday. In what was seen as a fragile ceasefire rather than a lasting peace, the two camps agreed that there would be "no deal" on a departure timetable but said talks would continue over achieving the "stable and orderly transition" promised by Mr Blair last year. But the divide was illustrated by the fact that neither man knew what the other was going to say in public yesterday. Nor did Mr Blair know Mr Brown would pre-empt his remarks by appearing first.
Speaking in Glasgow, the Chancellor admitted he had "had questions" about the transition to a new leader but said the timing was a matter for Mr Blair, that he would support his decision and and there could be no "private arrangements". Blair allies claimed later that Mr Brown had been seeking just such an arrangement about a leaving date a day earlier - a claim denied by Brownites. Both sides claimed the other had given ground in the past 24 hours.
Graham Stringer, MP for Manchester Blackley, said: "I don't believe by leaving the date up in the air, it is going to stop the kind of debate and discussion that's been going on."
Doug Henderson, a key Brown ally, said: "It does not seem to me that the public knows any more about the Prime Minister's retirement plans. People keep saying to me that the Labour Party must have a clear direction forward with clear priorities and a new leader before the elections in 2007. …