Former minister’s broadside puts Blair credibility at stake

Robert MacPherson
LONDON, June 27, 2006 (AFP) – British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s credibility was back on the line Tuesday after a former senior cabinet minister accused him of losing his sense of "purpose and direction".

The broadside from Charles Clarke, who was forced to resign in May as home secretary, came as Blair — whose Labour Party is sagging in the opinion polls — refuses to say when he plans to step aside for his more popular chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown.

In one of several interviews that appeared in print and on the airwaves, Clarke told the Times newspaper that he wanted to see Blair continue as prime minister until 2008.

But he added: "I do think there is a sense of Tony having lost his sense of purpose and direction so my advice to him is to recover that sense of purpose and direction and that remains the best option."

In another interview, broadcast on BBC radio, Clarke suggested that Blair — who a year ago led his Labour Party to a third straight general election victory — might not be able to recover his position.

"The best option would be for Tony to recover that leadership and authority and direction and to carry that through over a period of time, in my view," he said.

"Whether he is able to do that … whether he wants to do that, is not a matter for me, really. I simply observe there are a lot of doubts about it and I share some of those."

Reacting to the remarks, Blair said he had a "very great regard for Charles", but insisted that he was focused on forging ahead with controversial health and education reforms despite a prevailing din of "surface noise".

"We have got three years, if not more, before the next general election," he said at a gathering of newspaper editors in Downing Street. "What we should do is calm down, hold our nerve and get on with governing."

Perhaps anticipating Clarke’s criticism, Blair wrote in the Guardian newspaper Tuesday that he would do what he could to ensure that Labour remains in power in the years to come.