Blair dismisses rumours he will step down

 

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, facing rising public doubt and a revitalised Conservative opposition, is determined to lead his increasingly rebellious Labour Party into a third successive term in government.

"I will be putting myself forward," he told the News of the Worldnewspaper. "Whatever the problems and pressures this is an immensely enjoyable and fulfilling job and I intend to carry on doing it."

"The times are tougher but I am a tougher person than I was six or seven years ago. You have people kicking lumps out of you, but you can live with it, and I do," he said.

"I have made it clear this is a decision in the end for the British people at the next election. They are the ones who decide," Mr Blair said.

He rejected suggestions that he could step down as a fiftieth birthday present for his barrister wife Cherie later this year.  "I think the notion that you should determine this in relation to Cherie's birthday is one of the more bizarre suggestions I have come across," he said.

 Mr Blair, the country's longest serving Labour Prime Minister, dragged Labour from the left to the centre and led it out of 18 years in the electoral wilderness to a landslide victory in 1997 - repeating the feat in 2001.

He is expected to call a new general election in the first half of 2005, but has seen his own trust ratings tumble in the wake of the invasion of Iraq nearly a year ago and the failure to find the much vaunted illegal weapons of mass destruction.

He took a further hit months later over the suicide of a weapons scientist at the heart of a row between the government and the BBC over allegations Mr Blair's office had deliberately exaggerated the threat from Iraq to support its case for war.

Sensing his weakening grip, a revolt by large numbers of his own party brought the government to within a whisker of defeat over highly controversial education reforms.

A report by judge Lord Hutton last month exonerated Mr Blair of knowingly exaggerating the case for war against Iraq, but prompted charges of a whitewash in a graphic illustration of the once unblemished Mr Blair's fall from public grace.

The education revolt and sliding polls fueled speculation that Mr Blair was now electorally-damaged and could relinquish his leadership in favour or his ambitious and successful Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.