LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair's hold on office was dealt a strong blow yesterday when eight former loyalists quit the government in a bid to speed his departure.
The political crisis engulfing one of the Bush administration's staunchest allies follows months of unease within the Labor Party as support has dwindled over issues such as immigration, health care and 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, and opposition leader David Cameron has said that Labor is "in meltdown."
Polls have found Labor at its weakest point since 1994, trailing the newly reinvigorated Conservatives by several points. Nearly half of the respondents to 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 to replace him quickly with Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.
Questions about Blair's departure had arisen before the Labor Party fared poorly in local elections in May.
Open hostility broke out yesterday after 15 Labor deputies in Parliament 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, Tom Watson, a junior defense minister, 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 that he had been planning to dismiss Watson, saying in a statement that the round-robin letter made public through the news media was "disloyal, discourteous and wrong."
"We are three years from the next election. We have a strong policy platform. There is no fundamental ideological divide in the Labor Party for the first time in 100 years of history," Blair said in a letter to Watson. "To put all this at risk is simply not a sensible, mature or intelligent way of conducting ourselves if we want to remain a governing party."
Watson's resignation was followed by those of seven other junior party secretaries, all centrist Labor members of Parliament who are unpaid aides to Cabinet ministers.
Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.