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Blair to announce departure date

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Trying to quell politically damaging turmoil snowballing within the ranks of his own Labor Party, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to announce Thursday that he will leave office within a year.

Britain's Press Association reported that Blair will use a scheduled photo opportunity to announce a date for his departure, just two days after eight junior members of his government resigned in a dramatic bid to force his hand.

Wednesday, the prime minister's office would neither confirm nor deny a report in the The Sun newspaper that Blair had decided to step down as Labor leader on May 31, 2007, after rounding out a full decade in power.

In May 2005, when Blair led Labor to an unprecedented third consecutive election win, the prime minister said he would not seek the premiership again. But he had strongly resisted setting a timetable for handing over power to his presumptive political heir, Gordon Brown, who serves as chancellor of the exchequer, the British equivalent of finance minister.

However, with Blair's popularity slumping and Labor now trailing the opposition Conservative Party in opinion polls, some nervous Labor lawmakers had been pressing the prime minister to announce an exit sooner rather than later, in order to give Brown time to forge his own identity ahead of the next general election, expected in 2009 or 2010.

Wednesday, Tom Watson, a junior defense minister, and seven other Labor lawmakers who serve as aides to Cabinet ministers resigned their posts.

"It is with the greatest sadness that I have to say that I no longer believe that your remaining in office is in the interest of either the party or the country," Watson said in a letter to the prime minister. "I share the view of the overwhelming majority of the party and the country that the only way the party and the government can renew itself in office is urgently to renew its leadership."

Blair fired back in a letter to Watson, in which he called the resignations "a totally unnecessary attempt to unseat the party leader, less than 15 months after our historic third-term victory."

"To put all this at risk in this way is simply not a sensible, mature or intelligent way of conducting ourselves if we want to remain a governing party," Blair wrote.

The turmoil comes less than three weeks before members of the Labor Party are scheduled to meet for their annual conference, raising the specter of infighting overshadowing the proceedings.

Blair's popularity has been sapped by disagreements within his party over domestic reforms, and, most recently, what some Labor lawmakers criticized as a hands-off approach during the war between Lebanon and Hezbollah. But the overriding issue has been his steadfast support for the war in Iraq and his close association with President Bush, both of which are unpopular among the British public in general and his own party in particular.

"The biggest single thing that has undermined Tony Blair's credibility with the general public has been Iraq," said pollster Peter Kellner. "(His) close relationship with George Bush is undoubtedly costing him support in Britain."

Blair came to power in a landslide in May 1997, after pushing his once-moribund party away from its socialist roots and toward the center of the political spectrum. Labor's victory ended 18 years in the political wilderness during the premierships of Conservatives Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Blair and Labor won another strong victory in 2001, but in 2005, with the Iraq war sapping their popularity, they lost 47 seats from their parliamentary majority and cleared an anemic 35 percent of the vote, triggering a chorus of calls within the party for a change at the top.

CNN's Robin Oakley contributed to this report.


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Downing Street declined to comment or deny The Sun's story.

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