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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006, 11:36 GMT 12:36 UK
Things can only get better...?
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

If 26 April was Blair's Black Wednesday, what words will be used to describe next Friday if Labour bosses' predictions of gloomy English local elections results come true?

Tony Blair
Tony Blair says the under-fire trio should stay

The party has long been braced for a poor set of results - even before Charles Clarke, Patricia Hewitt and John Prescott exploded onto the front pages.

The fact that three of Tony Blair's most senior, experienced and battle-hardened ministers are the subject of resignation calls and/or ridicule have patently made matters much worse.

If, as many are demanding, Mr Clarke was forced to resign before voters go to the polls next Thursday, it would only add to the impression of a government in serious trouble.

And the desire not to give that impression, combined with Mr Blair's desire not to lose another friend from the Cabinet, may yet be Mr Clarke's greatest protection.

Head down

But the parallels with the death throes of John Major's Tory government in the mid-1990s are already being drawn, with ministers being forced to deny claims the government is in "meltdown".

Cherie and Tony Blair and John and Pauline Prescott
John Prescott, with the Blairs and wife Pauline

It is, however, an image that is hard to dispel and, as previous administrations have found, once the idea takes hold it can be impossible to shake off and can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, even before the electorate give their verdict, Tony Blair is suffering one of his most difficult periods in government.

There have been plenty of those before and each time the prime minister has put his head down, focused on the bigger picture and refused to be moved. He even jokes about the number of "worst weeks ever" he has suffered.

But this feels different. There are still major problems ahead over the cash-for-peerages investigations, the controversial education bill and NHS reforms.

Mr Clarke is far from out of the woods, Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt will not easily be able to shrug off the hostile reception she received at the hands of nurses - indeed things could still get worse for her if threatened strikes take place.

And John Prescott will never again be able to use the words "sleaze" or "morality" in his once-frequent attacks on the Tories.

Resignation calls

All this will now feed directly into those local elections, and no matter how hard the prime minister tries to claim they are about local issues, the results will be seen as a verdict on both the current state of the government and, more pointedly, his premiership.

Charles Clarke
Charles Clarke: Facing quit calls

The prime minister had already been bracing himself for a significant setback in the polls and Labour bosses have been carefully painting a bleak picture in what is often seen as the usual game of attempting to make the result look not so bad on the day.

But even they must have been throwing their hands up in despair at the succession of problems that have been buffeting the government.

It all means that there is a lot of stake in the local elections next week for Mr Blair. Indeed two Labour council chiefs have written to him suggesting he consider his position if the result is bad - a sentiment that is echoed in significant sections of the parliamentary Labour Party.

Of course, if David Cameron's Conservatives fail to make the most of any Labour losses, that will give Downing Street some comfort.

But the question now dominating talk in Westminster is whether Mr Blair will be forced into clarifying his intentions, even announcing some sort of resignation timetable, in the wake of the local elections.

Nick.Assinder-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk




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