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Blair ally denies knowing of any departure plan

Written by: Staff

LONDON, May 14 : A close ally of Britain's Tony Blair today said he had no knowledge of any plan for the prime minister to quit next year despite reports in three newspapers that Blair had agreed to do so.

Blair has insisted he will not give a timetable for his departure, although he has said he will stand down by the next general election due by 2010 at the latest. Chancellor (Finance minister) Gordon Brown is widely expected to succeed him.

The Independent today newspaper said Blair, in office since 1997, had told several cabinet ministers in recent days that he would go next summer.

But Lord Charles Falconer, a cabinet minister who has known Blair since their schooldays and shared an apartment with him in the 1970s, said he was unaware of any planned resignation date.

Asked on BBC television if he knew of a date and was prepared to share it, he replied ''I don't and I'm not.'' Asked on Sky television if Blair were likely to go next summer, he replied: ''I have no idea.'' Blair has come under increasing pressure in recent weeks after a poor performance by his centre-left Labour party in local elections and a series of scandals which have prompted allegations of incompetence and sleaze.

The Independent today quoted one unnamed government minister as saying Blair had given ''almost half the cabinet'' private assurances about a departure date.

It quoted an unnamed cabinet member, questioned about whether Blair had informed him he would go next summer, as saying ''I'm not going to tell you exactly what Tony said but I wouldn't disagree with that.'' The Mail on Sunday newspaper, citing senior government sources, said Blair had told Brown in February that he would step down in July of next year.

The Sunday Times, citing senior sources, said Blair hadoffered a ''zone of time'' in the second half of next year.

Falconer, constitutional affairs minister in Blair's government, pleaded for an end to constant speculation about the relationship between the prime minister and his finance minister.

''The one thing we shouldn't be talking about all the time is ... what's happening between Mr Blair and Mr Brown,'' he said.

''We should be focusing on the policy issues, not this constant focus on interpersonal issues,'' he told Sky.


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