Open warfare as rivals line up to succeed Blair

Key Points

• Growing consensus among Labour politicians Blair’s downfall inevitable.

• Ministers try to stand firm amid calls for vote over UK deployments to Iraq

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• Friends of Chancellor insist he is not behind gossip surrounding PM

Key Quote: "Gordon wants to be leader, but he’s happy to wait until we’ve won the next election and then arrange a smooth transition." - Brown supporter.

Story in full: TONY Blair’s premiership appeared to be entering its final phase yesterday, with Cabinet ministers led by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, openly manoeuvring to succeed him.

The Prime Minister let it be known that he has every intention of staying in the job to oversee Iraq’s transition to self-rule, with aides promising a new Washington-backed plan for an enlarged UN role in the country.

But the growing consensus among Labour politicians is that Mr Blair’s downfall is now inevitable.

Even as Mr Blair’s allies vainly hope for an end to the scandal of the coalition’s treatment of Iraqi captives, another political crisis looms.

Ministers were last night trying to stand firm amid growing calls for a new parliamentary vote over future UK deployments to Iraq, which would give sceptical MPs a fresh opportunity to hit out at Mr Blair’s record on the conflict.

Friends of Mr Brown meanwhile insisted that the Chancellor is not behind the feverish gossip surrounding Mr Blair’s leadership, accusing Cabinet rivals such as Peter Hain, the Leader of the House, of whipping up the speculation.

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As Cabinet ministers rallied around the Prime Minister, allies of Mr Brown said he is not trying to undermine Mr Blair. The Chancellor was said to be worried that rumours of a Labour leadership challenge will hurt the party at next month’s English council and European elections, and may even cut Labour’s majority at next year’s general election.

A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times suggested that the Prime Minister may be becoming an electoral liability to the party he has led for a decade. Mr Blair has told friends that should he cease to be a vote-winner for Labour, he will step down.

The survey showed that 46 per cent of voters want Mr Blair to step down before that election, and another 22 per cent want him to go soon afterwards.

The Chancellor himself appears to be in the second camp.

Aides to Mr Brown dismissed as "silly gossip without foundation" reports that the Chancellor had agreed a "peaceful succession plan" with John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, when the two shared a car journey in Scotland last week, stopping briefly at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar in Argyll.

Those words may have been designed to quieten Mr Brown’s more enthusiastic backers, but they cannot quell the doubts about Mr Blair’s future.

Mr Prescott saw to that over the weekend when he said that the "tectonic plates" beneath Mr Blair’s premiership are "shifting" and that Cabinet ministers are positioning themselves for a succession battle.

Speculation over an imminent change of leadership reached such heights yesterday that one newspaper reported that the Brown camp has drawn up a "fantasy cabinet" list. Bookmakers slashed their odds on Mr Blair stepping down this year after receiving several large bets on an imminent Downing Street coup.

The growing sense of Mr Blair’s inevitable demise is emboldening Labour MPs to say publicly what was once only discussed behind closed doors.

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Martin O’Neill, the MP for Ochil and chairman of the Commons industry committee, yesterday described Mr Blair’s government as "holed beneath the waterline".

The damage is "not fatal", Mr O’Neill told the BBC’s Politics Show. Yet he immediately went on to discuss the likely candidates to replace Mr Blair, describing the Chancellor as the clear favourite and dismissing John Reid, the Health Secretary, as "not in Gordon Brown’s league". Mr O’Neill added: "Other people will emerge if there is a contest, but Gordon Brown is likely to be the favourite."

The Chancellor is increasingly confident that he will replace Mr Blair, and friends said that confidence means Mr Brown is in no hurry to see the Prime Minister fall.

"The last thing he wants is to start splitting the party now," said one Brown supporter. "Gordon wants to be leader, but he’s happy to wait until we’ve won the next election and then arrange a smooth transition."

Should such a transition come, it may not be entirely smooth. Mr Brown’s would-be challengers for the leadership include Mr Hain and Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary.

Mr Hain has raised suspicions that he is trying to distance himself from the Prime Minister in anticipation of a leadership bid.

Last week in Parliament, he was far more critical of the Bush administration’s record on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners than was Mr Blair, who is under pressure from back-benchers to break with Mr Bush on Iraq.

Yesterday, Mr Hain told Radio Five Live that Mr Blair has hit "a really big sticky patch", the worst of his seven-year premiership.

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Another Brownite MP said of Mr Hain’s comments: "Some people who fancy themselves as leadership candidates are manoeuvring for position."

With scarcely six weeks to go before the Iraqi people are scheduled to assume sovereignty of their shattered country, Ann Clywd, Mr Blair’s special envoy to Baghdad, warned that power struggles at Westminster are undermining British policy in Iraq.

"So many people seem to be positioning himself for his job, they seem to be losing sight of why we went into this war in the first place," she said.

The Conservatives seized on Labour’s internal disputes.

"Britain now has a prime minister with weakened authority and a chancellor with heightened expectations,’’ said Liam Fox, the Tory party co-chairman. "Cabinet ministers are fighting like ferrets in a sack."