Loyalists back Blair against rebels in first real confrontation since election

Tony Blair faced Labour Party members behind closed doors Wednesday in a confrontation where loyalists shouted down calls from rebels for Blair to step aside over Labour's slashed majority in last week's elections.

Loyalists thumped their desks in appreciation of Blair, silencing demands from party rebels who called for Blair to step aside.

"Everyone who dared to say that Tony was less than perfect was shouted down," said Labour legislator Ken Purchase. "On the back of a third Labour victory it is not surprising that people feel pretty protective toward him."

Senior Cabinet ministers and some lawmakers have been lining up behind Blair, who led the once-moribund party to an unprecedented third straight victory. The meeting is considered an important barometer of the balance of power in the party.

Calls for Blair to make way for Treasury chief Gordon Brown - who is widely credited with the robust economy that helped secure Labour re-election despite public anger over the Iraq war - erupted immediately after Labour's majority fell from 161 to 67 in the 646-seat House of Commons last Thursday.

With some legislators opposed to Blair approaching the government's majority in number, the situation might spell trouble for the premier. In a political culture where the gentlemanly exit is not inconceivable, many doubt he'll serve out his full five-year term.

Blair supporters seem taken aback by the vulnerability of a man who refashioned Labour as a dominant centrist party, sweeping to power in 1997 after nearly two decades in the opposition. The developments also have re-energized the Conservative Party, where veteran leader Michael Howard has said he will resign and a leadership battle has drawn in several younger candidates.

At Wednesday's meeting, Blair urged lawmakers to make the most of Labour's third term and focus on improving public services, a party spokesman said.

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell rallied behind Blair and said demands that he quit were "complete nonsense."

"Tony Blair has just been re-elected as prime minister leading our government, and the best thing that people ... can do is get in behind the implementation of Labour's manifesto," she said Tuesday.

Blair has said he wants to serve a full third term until 2009 or 2010 before stepping down. But he is deeply unpopular with those Labour lawmakers who opposed the Iraq war, or who dislike the direction he has dragged the traditionally socialist party.

A large chunk of his domestic agenda - from raising tuition fees for university students, to private sector involvement in state run health care, and a raft of tough anti-terrorism laws - has angered sections of the party.

The calls for Blair to quit have come largely from within a hard core of around 40 rebels, dubbed "the usual suspects" by loyalists.

"It's not just about the leader," said Labour rebel John McDonnell Tuesday. "We need a wider debate around Labour policy. On the doorstep, nobody was calling for more privatization, top-up fees for students, fewer civil liberties and more wars."

Some want Blair to quit immediately. Others want him to transfer power in an orderly fashion within 18 months to two years, to give his successor time to build a strong platform for elections that must be held by 2010. Brown, a popular and powerful figure in the party, is regarded as Blair's likely successor.

The process of toppling a Labour leader is complicated. A party spokesman said a challenger would need the signatures of 72 Labour lawmakers - 20 percent of the parliamentary party - and the backing of a majority of the wider party, including grass roots membership and trade unionists, at a party conference.

A direct challenge against Blair would be bitterly divisive and is thought unlikely. The Conservatives have never fully recovered the leadership coup which toppled Margaret Thatcher 15 years ago, and Brown is unlikely to want to inherit a divided and feuding party.

Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who quit the Cabinet in opposition to the Iraq war, said Blair's close allies should tell him it was time to go.

"They can assure him that his legacy in history is already amply secured by what he has already achieved, but that the best way to safeguard it now is by an agreed and orderly succession," he wrote in Tuesday's Evening Standard newspaper.

ED JOHNSON, Associated Press Writer

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