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Blair fails to appease party men

By Staff
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LONDON, May 6: British Prime Minister Tony Blair's swift overhaul of his government after dismal local election results failed to reassure critics within his Labour Party who called for him to make clear when he will step down.

A day after Blair's wholesale shake-up, would-be successor finance minister Gordon Brown repeated his call for urgent change in the party following the election rout.

''We've had a wake up call,'' Brown told GMTV television.

''We've had a signal that cannot be ignored and that makes it more urgent we do what we've go to do -- and that it is to renew ourselves to deal with these challenges ahead.'' Blair, who was elected for a third successive term in 2005, has said he will not fight the next national election due by mid-2010 but wants to see through his reform agenda.

Brown, who has been finance minister since 1997 and long coveted the top job, said he would talk to the prime minister this weekend about how to revitalise the party and win back voters after the poor local election results.

Labour lost 319 council seats in Thursday's local authority elections while the Conservatives won 316. Analysts had said more than 200 losses would be bad for Blair.

Some Labour lawmakers today said that uncertainty about the leadership, on top of accusations of sleaze and political bungling, was sapping voter confidence and had dealt the party a serious blow at the ballot box this week.

''There really is a need for change right at the top now,'' lawmaker Geraldine Smith told the BBC.

''The change that many people would like to see is actually Tony Blair announcing when he is going to stand down and have a proper timetable and an orderly transition of power.'' However other Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) said the Blair critics were a minority.

BACKBENCH REVOLTS Blair responded fast yesterday to the poor poll results by axing his foreign and interior ministers, putting long-standing backers in top jobs and junior supporters in key party posts, in what was seen as a bid to reassert his authority as leader.

Blair's official spokesman said the reshuffle was intended to put experienced people in top positions while bringing on talent to push through his reforms of public services.

British media said today that a letter calling for Blair to say when he will step aside was circulating among Labour lawmakers. Unconfirmed reports said about 50 of the party's 353 MPs were willing to sign so far.

A poll of 25 losing Labour councillors by a television channel showed a third wanted Blair to go now while nearly half believed the reshuffle would not repair the party's reputation.

Blair has faced a string of revolts from Labour lawmakers over his reforms in the past year. A schools reform bill only passed a key hurdle in parliament thanks to opposition support.

While some Labour members object to policy measures, there is also a hard core of Blair critics who hope their opposition will hasten his departure and bring in Gordon Brown.

However analysts said the government overhaul signalled that Blair was in no hurry to step down.

Some Labour members are worried Blair's determination to see through reforms in sensitive areas such as health and education, knowing he won't be facing voters again, could hurt the party.

''He's taking dangerous and risky decisions which aren't good for the Labour Party and aren't good for the country,'' said Labour lawmaker Graham Stringer, who also called for a quick and orderly handover to a new leader.

REUTERS

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