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Tony Blair to step down in a year

Last updated on: September 07, 2006 22:04 IST

Faced with a string of resignations and bitter feuding in his Labour party, embattled British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday said he will step down within a year but refused to set a definite departure date.

"The next Labour party conference in a couple of weeks will be my last as party leader, the next Trades Union Congress will be my last TUC, but I am not going to set a precise date now for leaving office," Blair said outside a London school.

Blair said: "The past week has not been our finest hour. I think what is important now is that we understand that it is the interests of the country that come first and we move on. I will have preferred to do this in my own way, but it has been pretty obvious from what a lot of my Cabinet colleagues have said earlier in the week."

The prime minister said he believed it was not right to set a precise date now. "I don't think that is right. I will do that at a future date and I will do it in the interests of the country and depending on the circumstances of the time."

Seven members of Blair's government resigned on Wednesday asking him to announce the date of his departure from office. Junior Defence Minister Tom Watson had said Blair's continuation was not in the interests of the country or the ruling party.

Six more Parliamentary Private Secretaries -- Khalid Mahmood, Wayne David, Ian Lucas, Mark Tami, David Wright and Chris Mole -- quit their posts soon after Watson resigned because Blair has not 'ended the uncertainty' over when he intends to step down.

Blair has been under pressure to quit earlier than May in order to get a new leader in place before elections in England, Scotland and Wales -- which are expected to be disastrous for Labour.

Chancellor Gordon Brown has said it was right for Blair to decide when he will leave Downing Street and he will support him in whatever decision he takes about his future.

"I am determined that in the months and years to come we continue to do our duty by the people of Britain -- and it is my determination and his to do that -- that will influence everything that happens in the time to come," Brown said earlier.

The spate of resignations followed reports in the media in London that Blair will formally quit on July 26 next year once his successor had been chosen, most likely Chancellor Brown. Prior to that he would resign as the Labour party leader on May 31, The Sun had reported.

Blair, in his statement, said: "The first thing I had like to do is to apologise actually, on behalf of the Labour party for the last week, which, with everything that has been going on back here and in the world, has not been our finest hour, to be frank."

"But I think what is important now is that we understand that it is the interests of the country that come first and we move on."

The British prime minister said: "I think the majority of people in the party, do understand, that it is the public that comes first and it is the country that matters, and we cannot treat the public as irrelevant bystanders in a subject as important as who is their prime minister."

"So we should just bear that in mind in the way we conduct ourselves in the time to come. And in the meantime, I think it is important that we get on with the business," he added.

The leader of the Commons Jack Straw on Thursday became the most senior cabinet minister to suggest that the prime minister will leave in May, two years after his historic third election victory, but warned that Labour was on the edge of an 'abyss.'

Straw said it was 'reasonable' to expect Blair to serve for at least two years after his third election victory. He said the prime minister will stand down in time to allow his successor to be in place before the start of next summer, but delivered a warning over the conflict within Labour.

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