Sex Scandal, Low Ratings Are Latest Setbacks to Blair Government

Popularity ratings for Prime Minister Tony Blair, shown last month with embattled Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, are at a low of 33 percent.
Popularity ratings for Prime Minister Tony Blair, shown last month with embattled Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, are at a low of 33 percent. (By Stephen Hird -- Associated Press)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 1, 2006

LONDON, April 30 -- Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott appeared to be fighting for his job Sunday in the midst of a sex scandal, while a new opinion poll showed that 57 percent of Britons find Prime Minister Tony Blair's government "sleazy and incompetent." At the same time, Blair's popularity is at an all-time low with just 33 percent of those polled saying he was "doing well."

In addition to Prescott's woes -- centered on allegations of a longtime relationship with a former secretary -- two other top cabinet ministers were fighting off scandals Sunday, just days before local elections on Thursday that are widely seen as an important measure of how much longer Blair can stay in office.

He has said he would not seek reelection to a fourth term, and calls for him to step aside sooner rather than later have grown in recent weeks, spurred by a campaign financing scandal and a growing perception of cabinet ineptitude.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke has been harshly criticized, with opposition politicians calling for his resignation since disclosures last week that 1,023 foreigners who were supposed to be considered for deportation after serving prison sentences had been released over the past seven years. On Friday Clarke was forced to admit that five of those released had since committed new crimes.

Clarke said a massive law enforcement operation was underway to find the wrongly released people, and that six were in custody pending deportation. The Home Office has not provided any more specifics about the efforts to recapture those still at large, including some who had been convicted of rape and murder.

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt is also under fire for her comments last week that Britain's National Health Service, which is in deep financial trouble and cutting personnel and services, had just enjoyed its "best year ever." Critics, including nurses who shouted her down during a speech, said Hewitt's comments were arrogant and out of touch with reality and that she should resign.

The YouGov poll in the Sunday Times, in which 57 percent of respondents said Blair's government was "sleazy and incompetent," found weak support for the three ministers: 53 percent said Clarke should be fired, 51 percent said Hewitt should go and 49 percent said Prescott should be fired.

All three scandals were painful news for Blair and his Labor Party, but by far the most humiliating spectacle was the sex scandal involving Prescott, 67, a close ally of Blair and one of the party's stalwarts.

Prescott's former secretary, Tracey Temple, 43, has accused Prescott of having an affair with her, which included liaisons in his office and in a hotel room just before they joined Prescott's wife, Pauline, for dinner downstairs. Photos of Prescott and Temple romping and laughing together at various parties -- and in more serious mode at official functions -- have been prominently played in the newspapers for several days.

But the scandal exploded Saturday night, when an emotional Temple appeared in a video broadcast on television accusing Prescott of betraying her. Temple, who was reportedly paid at least $180,000 for her story, also gave a lengthy interview to The Mail on Sunday newspaper, in which she alleged that she and Prescott often had sexual relations behind the desk in his office, with the door left open. She said one sexual encounter at his taxpayer-funded apartment took place immediately after the two had attended an Iraq war memorial service at St. Paul's Cathedral.

Temple said in the interview that she had sent "desperate messages" to Prescott and others in the government in recent days asking for help with the unfolding scandal.

"But they have abandoned me and hung me out to dry," she said. "I have been left completely alone."

Prescott issued a statement Sunday in which he acknowledged having "intimate relations" with Temple and said, "I admit that I have acted stupidly and caused great distress to my wife and family."

But he said many of the allegations Temple made in her paid newspaper interview were "simply untrue and are clearly motivated by a desire to maximize financial gain."

The Sunday Times also reported allegations by a former Labor Party press aide, Tricia McDaid, 45, that Prescott had groped and sexually harassed her several times over a two-year period in the 1990s. Prescott denied the allegations.

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