TONY BLAIR urged his party to keep faith with the New Labour project yesterday, saying a change of course could spell disaster at next year's Assembly elections.
Embattled Mr Blair brushed off demands to name the date for his departure from office, saying that although his successor should have time to bed down before the next election, a timetable would "paralyse" the Government and damage the country.
On next year's Assembly elections he was confident that voters in socialist Welsh heartlands welcomed his modern New Labour approach with progressive policies and didn't want to turn the clock back.
And he rejected the idea that Labour would do better at next year's Welsh and Scottish polls - the next big ballot-box test - if it distances itself from his modernisation agenda. He said it was a "fallacy" that people in traditional Labour areas wanted different things from the rest of the UK, and a change of direction would send the party hurtling towards opposition.
First Minister Rhodri Morgan won the 2003 election on an agenda dubbed "clear red water" that set out to be consciously different from Mr Blair's, with a rejection of foundation hospitals and city academies at its heart.
Mr Morgan has suggested the party would do better in 2007 if Mr Brown took over. But in conciliatory remarks last week he said Mr Blair would bounce back after a series of setbacks.
Mr Blair's Government has been rocked by the foreign prisoners fiasco, scandals surrounding his deputy John Prescott and a poor set of council election results.
On a humid day at Westminster Mr Blair again found himself sweating under the television lights as he faced the media for more than an hour.
He attempted to steer the agenda back to policy - reeling off a list of key upcoming political decisions - but the questions kept coming back to his own future.
He told reporters gathered in Downing Street, "To state a timetable [for a handover] now would simply paralyse the proper working of government, put at risk the necessary changes we are making for Britain and damage the country."
He said people wanted the Government to concentrate on policy rather than internal battles, and talked about the busy months ahead, with a Pensions White Paper due this month and the energy review - expected to recommend a new generation of nuclear power stations - due to report before the summer. Naming a date for his resignation now "wouldn't end this distraction, but take it to a new level," he said.
Asked if a change of direction would help Labour win in Wales, he said, "It's the biggest fallacy in Labour politics that people in so-called traditional Labour areas don't want a constantly renewing Labour Party, because they do.
"I have never accepted, not for a single instant, that there are parts of the country that don't want the same prescription of traditional values modernised in implementation for today's world."
He acknowledged that while last week's English local election results had been bad for Labour, he said that they had not been as bad as many people expected.
"Where we lost support was not in the traditional Labour heartlands, by and large, but in London and the south-east where we lost a lot of the New Labour vote," he said.
A spokeswoman for Mr Morgan declined to comment on Mr Blair's statements last night.
Addressing critics on the Labour backbenches - who he later faced down at a private meeting in the House of Commons - Mr Blair said, "It is clear that, though there are those who just genuinely want me to honour the commitment to a stable and orderly transition - and I repeat I will honour it, with the time plainly needed for my successor to establish himself - there are also those whose desire is to change radically the direction of policy, and not to renew New Labour, but to reverse it. That way lies not a fourth term victory but a defeat and a return to opposition and I will fight that all the way."
Mr Blair insisted that Chancellor Gordon Brown was still his choice to succeed him.
"Of course he is. When have I ever said anything different? That is why I suggest everyone calms down and lets us get on with the business of governing," he said.
Tory leader David Cameron said it was time for Mr Blair to go.
"I think the sooner he goes the better, because I don't see how his authority can recover," he said.