LONDON – Seven junior members of Prime Minister Tony Blair 's government resigned Wednesday to protest his refusal to leave office as calls for the British leader to announce when he will step aside gained momentum.
The rebellion in Blair's Labour Party flared despite strong hints by senior ministers that Blair planned to step down within a year, and a news report claiming the departure date would be July 26.
Though the lower-level revolt was unlikely to force Blair from office, it raised fears that the eventual change of command will be rancorous and messy.
"I no longer believe that your remaining in office is in the interest of either the party or the country," Tom Watson, who was minister for veterans in the Ministry of Defense, said in a letter to the prime minister. He and other Labour Party members had previously signed a letter to Blair demanding that he step aside as prime minister.
Blair responded that he would have fired Watson if he hadn't quit and warned that intraparty divisions would damage Labour's effort to hold onto office.
"To put (the party's electoral success) at risk in this way is simply not a sensible, mature or intelligent way of conducting ourselves if we want to remain a governing party," he wrote.
Pressure from within Labour for Blair to announce a timeframe for his departure has intensified in recent weeks.
Legislators in closely contested districts, alarmed that the party is falling behind the opposition Conservatives in opinion polls, fear they will lose their seats in the next election, expected in 2009, if the leadership question isn't resolved soon.
Blair last week shrugged off demands that he announce his plans at Labour's annual conference later this month. He has been reluctant to set a specific timeframe for his resignation, fearing it would make him an instant lame duck, draining his remaining authority and power.
Blair led his party to its third re-election victory next year and is not obliged to leave office before the next national vote. However, many Labour lawmakers, angry over his handling of the recent fighting in Lebanon and Iraq and anxious about their slide in the polls, are demanding he say when he'll go because they fear the continued uncertainty will damage the party's electoral prospects.
British prime ministers generally don't say in advance when they'll leave office — most exit by losing an election, quitting on the spot or, like Margaret Thatcher, being pushed by their parties.
Blair has not committed to a resignation date, promising only that he will not seek a fourth term and will give his successor — widely expected to be Treasury chief Gordon Brown — time to settle into office before that vote.
But his health secretary and close ally, Patricia Hewitt, said Blair "has made it clear that he will step down next year."
"Everyone knows that the contest for the new leadership will take place next year," she said. In the meantime, she warned, "it is madness for some Labour (lawmakers) to demand conditions from the prime minister."
After Watson's announcement, six lawmakers who serve as unpaid aides to government ministers quit rather than remove their names from the letter urging Blair to step aside. Khalid Mahmood, Wayne David, Ian Lucas, Mark Tami, David Wright and Chris Mole had been Parliamentary private secretaries.
Blair made no immediate comment on the junior aides' announcements but called Watson's decision to sign the letter circulating among Labour lawmakers "disloyal, discourteous and wrong."
The Sun newspaper reported Wednesday that Blair intends to resign as leader of the governing Labour party on May 31, triggering a leadership election likely to take around eight weeks. He would then be replaced as prime minister on July 26, the newspaper said.
Blair's office declined to comment on the report, saying only that it had not authorized any leak to the newspaper.
The Sun, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate News Corp. and has been a crucial supporter of Blair since he took office in 1997, cited no sources.
As if to emphasize that Blair is still prime minister, his office announced Wednesday that he plans to visit the Middle East soon to promote peace in Lebanon and between Israelis and Palestinians. There was no word on precisely where or when Blair would go.