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MELTDOWN; Blair faces crisis as minister and aides quit over 'damage' to party.

Byline: By James Lyons

BELEAGURED Tony Blair was plunged even deeper into crisis yesterday when seven members of his Government quit in protest at his leadership.

One junior minister and six ministerial aides left their posts after telling the Prime Minister he will lose Labour the next election if he refuses to quit "urgently".

The senior of the seven rebels, defence minister Tom Watson, told Blair in his resignation letter: "I no longer believe that your remaining in office is in the interest of either the party or the country."

Parliamentary private secretaries Khalid Mahmood, Wayne David, Ian Lucas, Mark Tami, Chris Mole and David Wright also quit.

The seven were among 17 Labour MPs who signed a private letter on Tuesday calling for Blair to go.

Downing Street released the text of the letter yesterday. The rebels told Blair: "Sadly, it is clear to us - as it is to almost the entire party and the entire country - that without an urgent change in the leadership it becomes less likely that we will win the next general election.

"As utter Labour loyalists and implacable modernisers, we therefore have to ask you to stand aside."

Blair has never been more unpopular with the voters. And a growing number of Labour MPs believe he will hand power to the Tories and cost them their seats unless he gives a definite pledge to quit soon.

Activists in Scotland fear Blair's continuing presence will undermine their campaign for next year's Holyrood elections.

Friends of Blair have tried to defuse the growing crisis by promising he will be gone within 12 months.

But that pledge has been dismissed as "not good enough" by supporters of Labour's leader-in-waiting, Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Former minister Doug Henderson, aleading Brownite, said yesterday that Blair should quit this autumn to give his successor time to prepare for May's Scottish and Welsh elections and English local polls.

He claimed: "When they vote, people will want to know what the Labour Party will do in the future, not what it has done in the past."

Jim Devine, MP for Livingston, said it would be "totally unacceptable to the Scottish party" for Blair to still be in place on polling day.

He said it would be impossible to run a campaign with a Prime Minister in the middle of "a Frank Sinatra-style farewell tour".

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett, still one of Blair's closes tallies, warned MPs plotting against his pal to back off or risk splitting the party.

Blair himself accused those calling for his head of threatening to drive Labour from power after the most successful period in the party's history.

In his response to Watson's resignation letter, he claimed: "To put all this at risk in this way is simply not a sensible, mature or intelligent way of conducting ourselves if we want to remain a governing party."

Blair angrily rounded on Watson, calling him "disloyal, discourteous and wrong".

Furious Blairites accused the Brown camp of disloyalty, and the Brownites claimed the PM's allies were trying to slander their man.

One Blair supporter said: "If Gordon is desperate enough to push Tony out like this, it will finish him with voters and perhaps even the party."

But a senior Brown supporter hit back: "The Blairites have lost all discipline. They are trying to make it look like Gordon is behind this to try and stop him becoming leader."

A despairing minister without ties to either camp said the two sides were fighting over whether Blair will quit in a year or six months.

He complained: "People have taken leave of their senses.

"What on earth is the point of this? It is absolutely ridiculous."

Tory leader David Cameron tried to cash in on Blair's problems by branding him a lame duck.

CAPTION(S):

LETTER: Watson' FEELING THE HEAT: Blair' THE PARLIAMENTARY SIX PACK WHO WALKED IN AGREEMENT: From left, Khalid Mahmood, Wayne David, Ian Lucas, Mark Tami, Chris Mole and David Wright said the uncertainty over Blair was hurting Labour ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Sep 7, 2006
Words:675
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