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Blair under pressure after brutal cabinet reshuffle

Tony Blair, Britain's embattled PM, was facing growing pressure on Saturday to announce when he plans to resign.

india Updated: May 06, 2006 09:08 IST

Tony Blair, Britain's embattled prime minister, was facing growing pressure on Saturday to announce when he plans to resign even as the dust settled on his most dramatic cabinet reshuffle since taking office.

Blair, who was celebrating his 53rd birthday on Saturday, has pledged to step down before the end of his third term, which is due to expire by May 2010 at the latest, but has so far resisted calls to set an exact date.

This may change, however, as a letter is reportedly circulating around MPs in the governing Labour Party warning the prime minister to lay out his succession plans or face a leadership challenge.

The letter has already attracted some 50 signatures and The Guardian newspaper said that lawmakers plan to publish it, possibly by the end of next week, if Blair fails to comply.

The developments came after the prime minister sacked his home secretary, demoted his foreign secretary, took powers off his deputy and juggled other key ministerial posts in a dramatic cabinet reshuffle on Friday.

The move was aimed at injecting new life into the scandal-hit government.

But critics say it will take more than hiring and firing largely the same group of ministers to regain the confidence of voters, who dealt the Labour Party a painful blow in local election across England on Thursday.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Brown, the man seen as most likely to replace Blair, admitted the results were a "warning shot" from a frustrated electorate.

In one of its worst performances, Labour lost more than 300 council seats of the 4,361 up for grabs, while the main opposition Conservatives, in a boost for youthful new leader David Cameron, gained more than 300.

The BBC projected that if Thursday's local polls been a general election throughout Britain, the Conservatives would have taken 40 per cent of the vote, the smaller Liberal Democrats 27 percent and Labour 26 per cent.

Desperate to turn their fortunes around, a growing body of Labour MPs, including some who were once regarded as loyal to the prime minister, feel it would be best for the party if Blair makes public the details of his departure.

"There is a very clear feeling growing in the party that we would like clarity," said Nick Raynsford, former local government minister.

A transition timetable was needed to give Blair's successor "time to get the right team in place, for that team to bed down and to get on with the job for two or three years before the next general election so they really do have time to deliver on the government's priorities," Raynsford told Channel 4 News.

Blair is due to hold a press conference on Monday and address questions from his MPs later that night, The Guardian reported.

The prime minister will likely be wanting to focus on advancing his reform agenda with his new-look cabinet following Friday's shake up.

In the biggest changes, Charles Clarke, a combative figure who had been under fierce pressure over his office's failure to deport more than 1,000 foreign prisoners, was replaced as interior minister by John Reid, a key Blair ally who had been in charge of defence.

Blair also appointed Margaret Beckett as foreign secretary, the first woman to hold the post to replace Jack Straw, who becomes the leader of the House of Commons -- regarded by political commentators as a demotion.

Other changes were announced at defence, education and trade and industry, while Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who had admitted an extra-marital affair with a secretary, was stripped of many of his responsibilities.