Testing time as Blair targets human rights

TONY Blair attempted to shift political attention away from his own future yesterday, with new government pledges on scientific research and human rights.

However, speculation continued to grow about the timing of his departure. With his time in office dwindling, Mr Blair is determined to make progress on his personal policy priorities.

Leading scientists yesterday praised his decision to sign a petition backing the right of scientists to conduct medical research using animals.

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Downing Street said Mr Blair signed the petition to show the government would not be swayed by "extremist" animal rights activists who threaten investors in companies using animal testing.

Meanwhile, following criticism of the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Downing Street leaked a memo from Mr Blair to John Reid, instructing the Home Secretary to consider new legislation to curb judges' ability to contradict government decisions by citing the ECHR.

Although Mr Blair refuses to set a public timetable for quitting, allies privately expect him to depart in the second half of next year.

Some Labour figures are anxious for him to quit before next May's elections to Holyrood and the Welsh Assembly.

Jack McConnell, the First Minister, appeared to suggest yesterday that could happen. "I'm sure he will support us in the elections next year, whether or not he is Prime Minister," he said.