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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 January 2008, 10:59 GMT
Brown's legacy for Hain
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

If Gordon Brown's intention is to support Peter Hain, he is going about it in a way that may not delight his beleaguered minister and may leave him with an unfortunate and unintended legacy.

Gordon Brown and Peter Hain
Mr Brown continues to support Mr Hain

First, the prime minister praised Mr Hain's ministerial performance before adding "he took his eye of the ball" in relation to his deputy leadership campaign.

Now, again attempting to support Mr Hain, he has declared the work and pensions secretary presided over "an incompetence" in the way funding for that campaign was handled.

Everyone knows exactly where all this will lead - to Tory taunts that Mr Hain is an incompetent individual who takes his eye off the ball and, as a result, cannot be trusted to run a big-spending government department.

He may be able to live with that, particularly as his boss has also insisted he does not believe there was any corruption or illegality going on in the Hain camp, just mistakes.

And it is now up to the Electoral Commission and Commons standards watchdog to seal Mr Hain's fate.

Not guilty

If neither of those bodies offers any more than a mild rebuke to Mr Hain over the funding row, he will breathe a huge sigh of relief and the pressure on him to resign, or be sacked, will ease.

If there is anything approaching more serious criticism, things will be very different and his frontbench career may be on the rocks.

Peter Hain
Mr Hain's future is in hands of watchdogs

But what Mr Brown's remarks may have done is offer the opposition parties powerful weapons with which to attack Mr Hain even if he is cleared of any wrongdoing and stays in the cabinet.

There is absolutely no way that Tory spokesmen will simply accept a not guilty verdict and then ignore the prime minister's own words - "incompetence" and "eye off the ball".

They are gifts to the opposition - no doubt unintended and perhaps designed to suggest it was others rather than Mr Hain who were responsible - but MPs do not look such gift horses in the mouth.

Worse, if there is one quality Gordon Brown has attempted to suggest he and his cabinet have got in abundance, it is competence.

Indeed, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg lost no time in seizing on the remark to declare: "Whatever the Electoral Commission now decides, Peter Hain's political credibility lies in tatters."

All this has raised a suspicion in Westminster that Mr Brown is deliberately distancing himself from his minister, in preparation for cutting him adrift.

That is not believed to be the case and Mr Brown is thought to genuinely want to support Mr Hain.

But at the moment, the minister might be forgiven for wishing the prime minister would stop offering him quite such fulsome support.

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