Blair: Labour must get back to governing

The Labour party went “awol” from the British public over the past few weeks and must now get back to governing, Tony Blair has said.

The prime minister was speaking at the start of the Labour conference in Manchester, his last as party leader and one that is likely to be dominated by speculation about who will succeed him.

He has issued a “self-denying ordnance” on cabinet colleagues to refrain from talking about his succession, and in an interview with BBC One’s Sunday AM insisted he would keep to that by failing to endorse any one candidate.

Mr Blair praised Gordon Brown – who is still the frontrunner to be next Labour leader – saying he had been a “fantastic chancellor, he’s been a great servant of the country and the party”, but refused to endorse him as the next prime minister.

“I don’t resile [draw back] from anything I’ve said before, but this week I am talking to the public about the public’s concerns,” the prime minister said.

“And that’s the agreement we made at cabinet, and that’s what we are going to do and both of us realise – and we were talking about this yesterday together – that the most important thing is this week we set out agenda for the future.”

A YouGov survey for the Sunday Times today reveals 64 per cent of people want Mr Blair to set a timetable for his departure during his conference speech, and 69 per cent think the prime minister should step down by the spring.

But 48 per cent said they felt Mr Brown’s conduct during the recent row over the Labour leadership had raised questions about his fitness to become prime minister, although he remained the most popular choice among Labour voters.

In an interview today, the chancellor refused to chastise Tom Watson, the junior defence minister who signed a letter calling on Mr Blair to step down immediately, other than saying he had made a “mistake”.

Mr Watson visited Mr Brown’s home the day before the letter was circulated, but the chancellor has denied any part in the alleged coup. Today he said only: “He probably, reflecting on it, may wish to change his mind.”

Speaking this morning, Mr Blair warned against continued infighting in the Labour party, saying: “The danger for us is very, very simple. This is the problem with the last few weeks.

“For the first time since I became leader, the Labour party went awol from the British public, it looked in on itself, it started all the in-fighting and the rest of it.

“The public out there are angry about that. They don’t want to see their government do that. They want us to govern.”