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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006, 22:20 GMT 23:20 UK
Blair defends embattled ministers
John Prescott, Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke
Tony Blair says the under-fire trio should stay

Tony Blair has robustly defended his three under-fire Cabinet ministers and laughed off claims that he has suffered his own "Black Wednesday".

He was speaking after nurses booed the health secretary, John Prescott admitted an affair and Home Secretary Charles Clarke faced calls to quit.

The trio should all keep their jobs, Mr Blair told BBC News.

He added: "You know me well enough to know there's a resilience that will see through the next day's headlines."

Arsenal analogy

Mr Blair admitted Wednesday had not been a "great day" for his government but could not be compared to Black Wednesday in 1992 when people had "lost homes and jobs" as the pound slumped on the currency markets.

Shrugging off the series of attacks, he said: "The way politics works today is very, very high velocity, very high intensity and you just get used to it."

He likened forecasts about his government to the way people had written off football managers like Arsenal's Arsene Wenger, whose team have just reached the European Champions League final.

The government should take responsibility when things go spectacularly wrong on its watch
Nick Clegg
Lib Dem home affairs spokesman

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are both calling for the resignation of Mr Clarke.

The home secretary apologised earlier this week after 1,023 foreign prisoners, including murderers, rapists and sex offenders, were allowed to walk free without being considered for deportation.

'Sorting it out'

Mr Blair said people should realise that the criminals had finished their sentences and had not been released early.

He admitted there had been a systemic failure on deportation but said Mr Clarke was tackling the problem.

"If you take this system, which for decades has operated in this way. To be fair to him, he is actually sorting it out," he argued.

Probation chiefs have now confidentially been given a list of the most serious offenders so they can check to see if they have committed further crimes after leaving prison.

He was similarly resolute in his defence of Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, who was booed at the Royal College of Nurses' conference over job cuts.

Mr Blair said she should "certainly not" have offered to resign and said Labour was putting in the extra investment and reform needed to improve the NHS.

"People may shout and boo and heckle you and all the rest of it, but you've got to take the decisions that are right for the country otherwise you really shouldn't be doing the job."

Ms Hewitt said later that she had not considered resigning and had received Mr Blair's personal support.

She told Channel 4 News: "I had a phone call from the prime minister yesterday saying `thank you, that was difficult at the conference, and I think you handled it well'."

'Private matter'

Deputy Prime Minister Mr Prescott had also not offered to quit after revelations of his affair with one of his secretaries, said Mr Blair.

"That is a personal matter and I'm not going to say any more about it," he argued.

Mr Blair said he was confident there had been no breach of the ministerial code or questions about propriety for Mr Prescott to answer.

Earlier, Conservative leader David Cameron renewed his attack on Mr Clarke.

He said he was "not the right person" to lead the Home Office, especially after news that there were 1,500 more foreign prisoners in British jails than first thought.

He urged Mr Blair to bring forward his Cabinet reshuffle and create a new homeland security minister so the home secretary could get on with clearing up the "mess" on crime, immigration and prisons.

Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg said the Home Office had structural problems because it had a ''dizzying array of things" to do.

"But the government should take responsibility when things go spectacularly wrong on its watch and that is what has happened here - if this is not a resigning issue, I simply do not know what is," said Mr Clegg.


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