Pressure mounts on British PM

Two Sunday newspaper polls indicated public opinion had turned since the rows erupted last Wednesday.

British press attention has been focused firmly on Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott as the former boxer fought back from lurid revelations he had an affair with his diary secretary.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke was under sustained fire after admitting a blunder that saw more than 1,000 convicted foreign criminals released back into British society rather than being deported or considered for removal. Some went on to reoffend.

In addition, Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt’s stewardship of the publicly-funded National Health Service continued to be under the microscope.

She was shouted down by nurses during a speech, days after insisting the NHS had its “best year ever” despite a cash and staffing crisis.

“We are now seeing a Labour government that is in decline,” said David Cameron, the leader of the main opposition Conservative Party.

“People will be looking at all this incompetence but above and beyond that – step back from it and what you can see is a terminal loss of authority from Tony Blair.”

Council elections

If an ICM poll for the conservative Sunday Times newspaper proves correct, Mr Blair and his governing Labour Party could be in for a poor showing at this Thursday’s local elections in England.

Some 57 percent viewed Labour as “sleazy and incompetent”. Mr Blair’s personal rating seemed at its lowest ebb since becoming Labour leader in 1994: 64 percent thought he was doing badly; just 33 percent said he was doing well.

As for Mr Prescott, 48 percent thought he should be sacked; 53 percent want Mr Clarke to be axed while 51 percent of the voters want Ms Hewitt to resign.

A separate ICM poll for the conservative Sunday Express suggested the Tories were now more popular than Labour (29 percent against 27) with the Liberal Democrats on 22 percent.

Most found the Home Office and NHS rows “very damaging”; Mr Prescott’s affair, however, was viewed as “not very damaging”.

Political analysts say that if the Labour Party loses more than 300 council seats in London and other big urban areas to the opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, it could ratchet up the pressure for him to stand down.

Thursday’s polls, hard on the heels on one of the toughest weeks for his nine-year-old government, will be the first ballot-box test of Mr Blair’s popularity since he led Labour to a third straight general election win in May last year.

“It’s a huge publicly funded opinion poll, but there will be judgements
made about Tony Blair and his future,” said political scientist Tony Travers at the London School of Economics.

“If the results were to be cataclysmic for the Labour Party, then clearly it would put greater pressure on Tony Blair.”

Damage limitation

Senior Labour figures sought to limit the damage in a round of interviews Sunday.

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell dismissed as “absolutely ridiculous” reports that the problems had prompted Labour backbenchers to force Mr Blair to name a firm date to leave office.

Ms Jowell, who has herself come under scrutiny because of her estranged husband’s business dealings with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, conceded the government faced a test of character.

But she said it was “not a government of ministers who are on the make, of ministers who are liars”.

Mr Prescott, meanwhile, claimed much of secretary Tracey Temple’s account of their two-year affair, detailed in nine pages in the Mail on Sunday, was “simply untrue.”

He admitted he “acted stupidly” but also said he would take the matter to the Press Complaints Commission, accusing Ms Temple of being motivated by money.

Reports put her fee at between 100,000 pounds (A$240,000) and 250,000 pounds (A$600,000).

For her part Ms Temple insisted she was not responsible for the story being made public but now wanted to set the record straight as she had been “misrepresented”.

Meanwhile, as police continued the search for the most dangerous of the 1,023 foreign criminals overlooked for possible deportation on their release from prison, Mr Blair told the News of the World he could not guarantee Mr Clarke’s position.

Mr Clarke has faced a strong backlash particularly after saying Friday that five of the most serious offenders had gone on to commit drugs and violence offences after their release from prison.

Another two had been accused of rape, with one of the cases occurring after ministers were made aware of the situation.

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