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Prime Minister Tony Blair announces his future resignation

By Tom Hundley MCT

LONDON – Fighting to prolong his political life and preserve his legacy in the face of an escalating Labor Party revolt, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced yesterday that he would resign within a year.

But Blair, whose standing with voters has suffered because of his close alliance with President Bush, refused to set a specific timetable for his departure. And his assurance that this month’s annual Labor Party conference would be his last as the party’s leader might not be enough to quell the mutiny.

Blair, who just 16 months ago led Labor to an unprecedented third consecutive term in power, sounded slightly bitter and looked uncomfortable when he made his announcement in a northwest London schoolyard.

He said he would have preferred to orchestrate his departure “in my own way” and insisted peevishly that the “precise timetable has to be left up to me.”

The end has not quite arrived for Blair, but yesterday’s announcement signals the beginning of the final chapter and most likely a period of uncertainty in which Blair will struggle against the paralysis that comes with being a lame duck.

Few political analysts here believe Blair will last the full 12 months. Most expect he will resign as party leader sometime in May, triggering a six-week leadership battle that Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, is expected to win. Blair would then step aside as prime minister in favor of Brown.

Blair and Brown are the co-architects of the New Labor strategy that led the party back to power after 18 years in the wilderness, but beneath a facade of party unity and bonhomie, the two are fierce political rivals.

From the first day that Blair took up residence at No. 10 Downing Street, it was understood that someday he would step aside for Brown, who occupies No. 11. The “when” and “how” of this handover has been one of the enduring subplots of Blair’s nine-year premiership.

Blair will undoubtedly go down as one of Britain’s most successful politicians, but his approval rating plummeted when he aligned Britain with the U.S. against Iraq and sent British troops to fight in a deeply unpopular war. His unwavering loyalty to President Bush has been viewed with distaste by many Britons.

He was reminded of this yesterday when some students at the school he visited greeted him with anti-war chants and placards that said “time to go.” One student held aloft a large replica of a dog biscuit, recalling the frequent jibe that Blair is “Bush’s poodle.”

When Labor lost ground in the last general election and Blair’s approval ratings continued to sag, the question of succession gained more urgency.

Blair tried to put the issue to rest Sunday in a lengthy interview with the Times newspaper in which he said it would be a mistake to set a specific timetable and urged his opponents in the party to “stop obsessing” on the matter.

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