Blair demands silence as Reid leaves challenge open

Tony Blair yesterday called on cabinet colleagues to hold back from talking about the Labour leadership during next week’s party conference in Manchester.

The prime minister urged them to impose a “self-denying ordnance” for the next few days to avoid the issue causing further damage to the party’s image.

Yesterday senior ministers used a cabinet meeting to vent their anger about the events of the past few weeks, and Mr Blair agreed to put on hold his launch of four review groups to look at Labour’s future policies.

There are concerns that the past few weeks of infighting, which led Mr Blair to confirm he would quit within a year, will seriously damage Labour’s chances at the polls next May.

In an interview with the Spectator today, home secretary John Reid said that given this timetable “it would be mad to have some sort of war about what day of what month or which afternoon the handover actually takes place”.

He added: “So at some stage in the course of that period we have to start a process that may take some months.”

Mr Reid is widely considered to be a potential leadership contender – fiercely New Labour, he is very experienced and raised his public profile this summer while dealing with the terror alert at Heathrow.

He has insisted before that he has no ambitions for the leadership, but today said: “I don’t think anybody at this stage has to rule themselves out.

“I think we’ve got time just to take stock of the approach, the strategic position of the party and policy priorities, and I think that people will find, looking at the lessons of the last few weeks, that unity will be at a premium and that actually people want to work together more close.

“I don’t think people have to take that decision at this stage. I have said all along that I will not make any statement in any case until Tony Blair has announced he’s going or when he’s going.”

Mr Reid warned that it was Labour’s electoral success that was at stake now, and said the “worst thing that could happen is to push the prime minister out”.

“Because our great challenge is going to be to illustrate to the people of this country that whoever leads after Tony Blair is as committed to a modern, reforming Labour party, and a modern reformed country, as Tony Blair was,” he said.

“And it would be absolutely disastrous for that perception if there was any sense that he was being pushed out, because that would inevitably lead to the assumption that [Labour] wants to change direction.”