Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Fight to Dictate PM's Departure

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Fight to Dictate PM's Departure

Article excerpt

THE SENSE that events are unravelling beyond Downing Street's control has been heightened by the resignation today of seven ministers and government aides. Tom Watson, previously minister for veterans, and the six parliamentary private secretaries who have followed him in resigning, may be little known outside Westminster. But the fact that they have resigned after signing a letter calling on Mr Blair to clarify his departure date has added to the febrile speculation among backbenchers. Mr Blair's chilly response - that he intended to sack Mr Watson anyway - will do little to reassert his authority.

There are reports that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have had secret meetings today to find a way out of the crisis. Any such discussions will inevitably focus on the precise date for Mr Blair's resignation. The leak today of Downing Street's preferred date of 31 May and a final leaving date of 26 July will have done nothing to mollify Mr Brown.

Such a timetable would obviously be unsatisfactory to the Chancellor, since it would mean that the Prime Minister's departure would be delayed until important elections take place in Scotland and Wales. A dismal result would be a bleak start to a Brown premiership. Mr Brown wants Mr Blair to go sooner rather than later. Mr Blair shows no anxiety to oblige him.

Quite the contrary: a departure date set for next summer would allow the Prime Minister to claim a full, historic decade in office, but it would also enable opposition to a Brown premiership to emerge.

This might suit Mr Blair. He has always been guarded in sanctioning the Chancellor as his successor. A prolonged departure process would be a last shot from Mr Blair in thwarting Mr Brown's aspirations. As a result, Mr Brown wants a public and specific timetable for Mr Blair's departure.

The mistrust between Mr Brown and Mr Blair is such now that nothing but a categoric public declaration will do. Of course if Mr Blair sticks to his guns, he can be forced out only with great difficulty.

Downing Street has warned Mr Brown that the choice he faces is betweene orderly transition next year or a "catastrophic coup". …

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