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Blair confronts his critics


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LONDON, England -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has faced down his critics at a packed meeting of Labour MPs at the start of a new session of parliament.

He was given a rousing standing ovation after addressing the MPs at Westminster in a meeting that lasted about 80 minutes.

It was their first meeting since last Thursday's election, when Blair won a record third straight term for a Labour leader but with a severely reduced majority.

The prime minister has faced calls to quit after the government's majority in the House of Commons was slashed from 161 to 67.

But Blair's supporters said Wednesday he made short shrift of any doubters about his leadership.

"It was a great meeting. The silent majority are silent no longer," said Defence Secretary John Reid.

"They made their view known and you saw it in a standing ovation just now. We have waited a while for the silent majority to speak but they have now spoken," the UK's Press Association quoted him as saying.

Blair told MPs they could win a fourth term in power saying: "We can build out from this to a fourth term victory. ... A fourth term is there for us," according to PA.

MP Kevan Jones said there was widespread "irritation" at those who had written newspaper articles and spoken out criticising Blair in the wake of the election.

Those who spoke during the meeting "got a rough ride," he said.

But MP and actress Glenda Jackson, who opposed Blair over the Iraq war, said she told the prime minister "he had opened the Pandora's Box about his stepping down. ... He has to give us a timetable."

Blair critic and MP Bob Marshall-Andrews said he renewed his demand for Blair stand down but that the prime minister refused to listen.

Marshall-Andrews said at least four people spoke out at the meeting demanding Blair quit sooner rather than later but that critics were not allowed to air their views.

"It was not a happy meeting," Marshall-Andrews said.

Blair's spokesman said the prime minister had acknowledged Iraq was an issue in some constituencies.

Blair also said he understood that part of his role now was to ensure a smooth transition to his successor.

Blair has promised his third term will bring "radical" legislation on health, education and law and order.

But CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley says Labour's smaller majority could loosen Blair's grip on power and give more room to rebels who want him to step down in favor of heir apparent and finance minister Gordon Brown.

Blair, 52, has said he will serve a full third term but not take the Labour Party into another election.

Allies have insisted he will fulfill his pledge to serve a full parliamentary term.

Anger over Labour's poll performance was intensified by Blair's reshuffle of his Cabinet and government posts.

Ex-No. 10 adviser Andrew Adonis received a peerage and a junior education minister's post, with party donor Lord Drayson being named junior defense minister.

The new parliament formally begins on May 17 with the State Opening and Queen's Speech.


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