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Blair: I will resign within a year

Story Highlights

• Blair says he will leave office within a year
• PM refuses to set a date for his departure
• Finance minister Gordon Brown a likely successor
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair says he will resign from office within a year, but has refused to set a date for his departure.

Blair, whose political future has been the focus of heated debate in his own Labour Party, said Thursday that the party's annual conference later this month would be his last.

"But I'm not going to set a precise date now. I don't think that's right," Blair told reporters following a public appearance at a North London school.

"I will do that at a future date and I'll do it in the interests of the country and depending on the circumstances of the time," he said.

Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer and expected successor, said earlier Thursday that he would support Blair's decision and stressed that it was for the PM to decide when to go.

Brown said this "should not be about private arrangements but what is in the best interest of our party and most of all the best interest of our country and I will support him in doing exactly that."

Blair's statement came a day after eight junior members of his government resigned in a dramatic bid to force his hand.

"I would have preferred to do this in my own way but as has been pretty obvious from what many of my cabinet colleagues have said earlier in the week, the next party conference in a couple of weeks will be my last party conference as party leader," he said.

"The next TUC (Trades Union Congress) next week will be my last TUC, probably to the relief of both of us."

In May 2005, when Blair led Labour to an unprecedented third consecutive election win, the PM said he would not seek the premiership again. But he had strongly resisted setting a timetable for handing over power to Brown, who serves as the British equivalent of finance minister.

However, with Blair's popularity slumping and Labour now trailing the opposition Conservative Party in opinion polls, some nervous Labour lawmakers had been pressing the PM 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.

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

"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 Labour 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 Labour MPs criticized as a hands-off approach during the war between Israel and Hezbollah.

But the overriding issue has been his steadfast support for the war in Iraq and his close association with U.S. President George W. 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. Labour's victory ended 18 years in the political wilderness during the premierships of Conservatives Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Blair and Labour 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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