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Scandals Involving Blair's Cabinet Members Turn His Day Into 'Black Wednesday'


The government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been battered this week by allegations of incompetence, scandal and corruption that have stirred voters' anger just a week before important local elections.

Three senior members of the Blair cabinet have been stung by controversy on what the British media are calling the prime minister's "Black Wednesday."

The day began with an admission by Mr. Blair's deputy, 67-year-old John Prescott, of a long affair with a secretary 20 years his junior. A Blair spokesman was forced to respond, saying the prime minister stands behind Prescott.

Then, a few hours later, Mr. Blair appeared in parliament for his weekly turn to answer questions from the opposition. The Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, came armed with new data that more than 1,000 foreigner-convicts had been released from prison without considering their deportation. Cameron called for the resignation of Home Secretary Charles Clarke - the minister responsible.

"This home secretary has presided over systemic failure. He's failed to deal with it and he has misled people about the scale of the problem," said Cameron. "Isn't it clear that he cannot give the home office the leadership it so badly needs?"

Clarke appeared in parliament a short while later, vowing to stay in office, but admitting his mistake.

CLARKE: "It was a failure. I've acknowledged it's a failure and it must be got right. And as part of that …"

UNIDENTIFIED MP: "Apologize!"

CLARKE: "Apologize, the honorable gentleman shouts from a sedentary position. I do apologize. I have apologized and I continue to do so."

As Clarke wound up his appearance in parliament, embarrassment befell another Blair minister when Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt was jeered and heckled at a convention of nurses who are upset about job cuts and stagnant wages.

"We can listen to each other or not. It's entirely up to you. I would like to listen to you and I hope you'll listen to me," said Hewitt.

Commentators say the controversies could hardly come at a worse time for Mr. Blair, who himself faces potential questioning into allegations his Labor party took secret loans from rich benefactors in exchange for seats in the House of Lords.

"The broader, longer term view on this is the danger of people out there thinking that this is a government that is beginning to creak at the edges, the wheels are falling off, choose any phrase you like, where everything just goes wrong and it's buffeted by incident after incident: you've got prisoners on the loose, you've got a health secretary being heckled by nurses, you've got a financial sleaze scandal over cash-for-honors, you've got a minister being caught with his trousers around his ankles," summarized James Landale, a political editor for BBC television.

The government faces a key test of voter sentiment May 4, when local elections are held in the major cities across England, including all 32 boroughs in London.

Latest polls show Mr. Blair's Labor party slightly behind Mr. Cameron's Conservatives, but political scientists expect a low turnout and say many voters will be more influenced by how their local council is run than by the big national issues.

Still, the experts say, a poor showing by Labor could increase the pressure on Mr. Blair to resign and hand over power to his heir apparent, Treasury chief Gordon Brown.

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