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TONY Blair wants to keep it a secret. The Prime Minister has a retirement date in mind, but is determined to keep his options open. After Labour's recent mauling in the local elections and a panicstricken reshuffle that cost three ministers their jobs, he's under pressure to let the rest of the nation in on his plans.

And if he doesn't reveal his preferred option soon, the risk is that rebellious Labour MPs will force him out before he's ready to go. Here, as the Tony Blair era winds down, we look at his five potential departure dates.

A fresh start - or else

STRATEGY: Walking the plank

(Departure: July 2006)

BRUISED, battered and bloodied by weeks of political misery, Blair puts his hands up and admit the game's up.

Critics say voters have have fallen out of love with Blair but NOT with Labour. Only a new leader - enter Chancellor Gordon Brown - can renew the party.

They believe a fresh start will regenerate support and give Brown the best chance of trouncing David Cameron at the next General Election.

But Blair is no quitter and the political weather doesn't look quite so bleak from where he's sitting in his Downing Street bunker.

He won a third General Election a year ago, saying he planned to serve a full third term and, besides, dumping a PM is tricky under Labour's constitution.

The only beneficiary of Labour civil war, say the Premier's camp, is Cameron and his Tories.

Hatches in No 10 are being battened down in the hope the Labour lynch mob will melt away over the summer.

VERDICT: It's just not going to happen.

Let the party know

STRATEGY: White Flag

Departure: September

BLAIR will be under intense pressure to announce, loudly and clearly, when he'll be off at this autumn's Labour conference in Manchester.

It's difficult to see how he can get through September's moan-fest without saying something.

Crucially his Downing Street camp is divided, one faction wanting him to cut a deal with Gordon Brown while the other advocates holding firm.

The battle between the "realists" (or "capitulators") and the "ultras" exposes dangerous cracks in the Blairite citadel. A dramatic "Thank you and good night" declaration would certainly guarantee a standing ovation in September and possibly the best prospect of a dignified exit.

But the problem for Blair is it'd look like he was jumping before he's pushed. And courtiers who'll lose their jobs if the king goes will be urging him to regard a bad week in Manchester worth paying for another year in Downing Street.

VERDICT: Possible, but unlikely

Until the bitter end

STRATEGY: No surrender

Departure: 2009

IF he is determined to go the full term, Blair would clock up another three years before handing over the keys to No 10.

Yet such a plan would be political suicide both for himself and the Government with a single beneficiary - David Cameron.

Premiers - Margaret Thatcher, for instance - tend to lose touch with reality and think they are indispensable, a risk heightened if the leader says he has no intention of fighting another General Election. For Blair to seek to go on and on would be a godsend to Tories.

So such a desperate strategy is unlikely to feature in his thinking and if it does pop into his head, he can be expected to face stiff resistance.

Loyalty has its limits and Blair would find few prepared to go down with him when the time comes.

VERDICT: Electoral suicide

Don't go out like Maggie

STRATEGY: 10 long years

Departure: May 2007

CALLS to set a date will reach fever pitch should he keep his intentions secret until the 10th anniversary of Labour's first election triumph.

But the young Tony Blair I knew in opposition understood that Maggie Thatcher had made a terrible mistake by failing to take her bow from the Westminster stage on reaching the decade milestone.

Thatcher's record, like it or loathe it, had soured and she was a spent figure - but has the PM forgotten the Iron Lady's tearful departure?

Then again, 12 months from now and controversial school reforms will be smoothed through the Commons and the health service may indeed have been turned around.

Better still, a withdrawal from Iraq could even be on the cards. A Blairite legacy would be in place and Blair could walk out of the front door with his head held high.

Yet few leaders leave No. 10 willingly - and diehards urging him to stay now would most likely still be advising him to hang on.

VERDICT: A definite maybe

A place in the records

STRATEGY: Record breaker

Departure: Late 2008

BLAIR earns his place in history by beating Thatcher's 11-and-a-half years as the longest serving PM in this or the last century.

He'd then be able to claim he'd served his time, done all he could to change Britain and the world, and step down as a record breaker.

But he'd also risk breaking the Labour Party, opening the door to a Conservative government by out-staying his welcome.

It's inconceivable he'd survive to the end of 2008 without facing a formal leadership challenge.

Home Secretary John Reid favours Blair carrying on until 2008 - but it should be noted the wee Scot has ambitions of succeeding his master. And a 2008 departure would give the new leader 18 months to prepare for the general election.

In should also be noted that frustrating Brown seems to motivate some ardent Blairites as much as defeating Cameron.

Delay would additionally enable young pretenders - including David Miliband - to cultivate some gravitas.

VERDICT: Blair's favourite, but may fall earlier


PLANS: Tony Blair
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 8, 2006
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