London — Prime Minister Tony Blair's hold on office was dealt a strong blow Wednesday when eight former loyalists quit the government in a bid to speed his departure.
The political crisis engulfing one of the Bush administration's staunches allies follows months of unease within the Labor ranks as support has leaked away over issues such as immigration, health care, the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Less than 15 months since his party sailed to a historic third consecutive general election victory, Blair is seen by many of his allies as a liability, with his party, in the words of opposition leader David Cameron, "in meltdown."
Poll numbers show the Labor Party at its weakest point since 1994, trailing the newly invigorated Conservatives by several points. Nearly half the public in a Sunday Times poll last month said Blair should step down "immediately."
Signals from Blair's camp that he would step down by next summer have not appeased Labor critics, many of whom are hoping for a speedy succession by Treasury Chancellor Gordon Brown.
Questions of Blair's exit arose even before the Labor Party fared badly in local elections in May. Since then, the issue has come to be known as "the long goodbye."
The prime minister over the weekend tried to halt the latest drumbeat for a departure timetable by pledging to allow "ample time" for a successor to settle in. He called for a "stable and orderly" transition and urged the political establishment to stop "obsessing" about his departure and "get on with the business of government."
That was followed by a report in the Sun - not denied by Downing Street - that Blair planned to announce his resignation on May 31, 2007 and depart by the end of July. It seemed to be the timetable many had been seeking, but for others it was too little, too slow.
Brown's supporters have said they want a firm commitment to a departure date. Many Laborites prefer Blair resign before the May elections in Scotland and Wales, fearing Labor's prospects may be dismal without new leadership.
Open warfare broke out Wednesday after 15 Labor parliament deputies faxed a letter to Downing Street outlining the "brutal truth": that Labor risks losing the next general elections, expected in 2009, unless Blair agrees to "stand aside."
By morning, it was a race to see whether the most prominent of the signatories, junior defense minister Tom Watson, would quit or be fired. Watson won, declaring with "great sadness" in his resignation letter that "I no longer believe that your remaining in office is in the interest of either the party or the country."
Blair announced he had already been planning to dismiss Watson, complaining in a statement that the round-robin letter through the media was "disloyal, discourteous and wrong."
The departure set off a cascade of resignations from seven junior party secretaries - all centrist Labor parliament members who serve as unpaid aides to cabinet ministers.
Barely able to contain their glee, Conservative Party leaders mainly stood back and watched the drama unfold.
"Increasingly it appears this government is in meltdown and divided. It seems unable to show leadership on the challenges of the future," Cameron said on a trip to India.