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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006, 07:14 GMT 08:14 UK
Blair's treble trouble
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Tony Blair must wake each morning wondering what appalling new headline will scream at him over his breakfast cereal.

Charles Clarke
Mr Clarke offered to resign
Calls for Home Secretary Charles Clarke's resignation over the foreign criminals affair - as it emerged he had known of the problem for months but failed to stop it - would have been bad enough.

But he was also greeted by the revelation - with a series of full colour photographs - that the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, had had an affair which had left his wife "devastated".

And then Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt was heckled by frontline health workers for the second time in three days - having to abandon her prepared speech amid a rowdy reception from the Royal College of Nursing conference in Bournemouth.

And all this as the cash-for-peerages row continues to rumble throughout Westminster and speculation over the timing of the prime minister's departure from Number 10 refuses to die down.

The sense of a government that is struggling to keep control of events, with the prime minister attempting to fight one forest fire after another, is hard to escape.

The latest events have already been described by some as the government's 'Black Wednesday'.

The image of a government struggling to keep control was one Tory leader David Cameron played up during question time, claiming the government was too bothered about watching its back to deal properly with incompetent ministers.

The latest affairs have certainly proved yet another distraction at a time when the prime minister is attempting to concentrate on fighting the local elections and, more urgently for him, securing his legacy reforms in health and education.

Hands up

Firstly, as far as the home secretary is concerned, his position took a significant turn for the worse in the space of just a few hours.

John Prescott
Mr Prescott has admitted to an affair
Tory spokesman David Davis, who had only last night held back from demanding Mr Clarke's head, declared during a Commons statement that his position was now untenable.

Probably worse, Mr Clarke confirmed he told the prime minister of the affair before Christmas and even offered to resign yesterday - suggesting he accepts this may well be a resignation issue.

That has succeeded in dragging Tony Blair into the row and he will now face continuing questions over his own role in it.

And, while Mr Clarke may still be attracting the prime minister's support, it seems he may only have been left in his job so he can sort out the mess. It was also noted that the prime minister did not stay in the Commons after question time to listen to Mr Clarke's statement.

Mr Clarke himself, meanwhile, appears to have adopted a version of the self-flagellation strategy, touring every media outlet and making a full Commons statement admitting the mistake, putting his hands up and insisting it is his duty to stay and sort it out.

It is a tried and tested strategy which may or may not have the desired effect.

Full backing

But the opposition parties now have him firmly in their sights with, unusually, both the Tories and Liberal Democrats demanding his resignation.

And it is far from certain that he will be able to weather this storm in the longer term - there is still a government re-shuffle expected some time this summer, for example.

David Davis
Mr Davis has stepped up attack on Clarke
On another front, John Prescott's private life has been opened up to further scrutiny after he admitted to the affair with one of his secretaries.

That will widely be seen as a purely private matter and the prime minister has offered his full backing.

It is, none the less, yet another distraction and will see some drawing fresh parallels with the allegations of sleaze which Labour used to help damage the last Tory government.

Ms Hewitt's experience, being slow handclapped and booed and heckled by nurses, cannot have done much to strengthen her position seeing through health reforms which Mr Blair hopes will be one of his legacies.

As these separate forest fires continue to flare up, the prime minister will find his task of concentrating on the job in hand increasingly difficult.


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