Scandals dent Blair's standing

The British government has been rocked by exposures of cabinet misdemeanors that critics say reduce Tony Blair's political power ahead of parliamentary elections next week.

    Tony Blair is facing increasing doubts over his leadership

    Allies of the British prime minister dismissed suggestions the government was in "meltdown" on Thursday as it battled a crisis of incompetence and sleaze.

    However, supporters in his Labour Party feared the troubles engulfing three individual ministers - which appeared to reach a crescendo on Wednesday - could spell trouble for the May 4 polls, seen as a test of Blair's authority.

    Worse than expected results could hasten calls for Blair to step aside for the leader in waiting, Gordon Brown, the finance minister.

    The cabinet, at its weekly meeting, rallied to the support of Charles Clarke, the interior minister, who is fighting to save his job after a damaging bungle over the failure to deport hundreds of foreign criminals on release from jail.

    Triple whammy

    "This is not what you would want at all. There are a lot of rumours this is not playing out very well (with voters)"

    Ian Gibson, Labour MP

    On Wednesday, dubbed "Black Wednesday" by the media, Clarke said he had offered to resign over the mistake, whilst John Prescott, Blair's deputy, admitted to having an affair and Patricia Hewitt, his health minister was jeered by angry nurses over flagship hospital reforms.

    Blair's spokesman said the cabinet expressed "full support" for Clarke and ploughed on with business.

    "It's a massive exaggeration to say that the government is in a meltdown," John Hutton, the work and pensions minister, told BBC Radio.

    At the cabinet meeting, Clarke had to explain why 1,023 foreigners, including murderers and rapists, were released after serving their prison sentences when they should have been considered for deportation.

    He has admitted to a "systemic failure".

    Diminishing authority

    Clarke apologised over a
    deportation bungle

    The three-fold crisis comes as Blair struggles to rebuild support for Labour, a year after he overcame criticism of his decision to wage war on Iraq and won a third straight election, albeit with a smaller majority.

    According to one opinion poll this week, Labour support has fallen to its lowest point since 1987, when Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party was in power.

    Labour parliamentarians (MPs) fear the latest crises could lose the party more votes next week.

    "This is not what you would want at all," Ian Gibson, a Labour MP told Reuters. "There are a lot of rumours this is not playing out very well (with voters)".

    Analysts said these were tough times for Blair but noted he had emerged from serious scrapes in the past.

    Tough politician

    Deputy PM Prescott admitted he
    had an affair with his secretary

    "He's been in really tight corners over the last four years quite regularly and I think he's just used to negotiating them," said Mark Wickham-Jones, a politics lecturer at Bristol University.

    Blair has endured weeks of opposition attacks over Labour's admission it accepted big loans from 12 businessmen, some of whom were later nominated for seats in the unelected upper house of parliament, the House of Lords.

    Blair pledged his government would be "whiter than white" when he took power in 1997 after sleaze allegations helped to bring down the previous Conservative government.

    The loans-for-peerages scandal and Wednesday's revelations that the deputy prime minister had an affair with a secretary fly in the face of that pledge.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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