Ministers' malaise leaves Blair in a pickle

Around Westminster this week people have kept asking me what I would recommend the Government does to limit the damage of the triple-whammy of minsterial scandals.

The truth is that very little can be done except the obvious - but I still can't see the Prime Minister chucking it all in voluntarily.

On the surface, Charles Clarke handled himself in a textbook manner, coming clean about the problem at the Home Office and offering his resignation.

Except for two things: the Home Secretary apparently overlooked the need to first inform the PM or the police about his local difficulties; and that while Clarke told the media that he had offered his resignation, my well-informed sources say this was also first the PM knew about it.

Blair, it seems, has now become such a weak leader that one of his ministers can brazenly tell porkies to save his bacon - and the PM can't act because he has few friends left in his cabinet.

Last week I wrote about how clever Blair was to lead on crime prior to the local elections while David Cameron visited an iceberg. But this week Blair dare not even mention crime without being derided by the Opposition.

Even worse, Labour's other natural campaigning issue - the NHS - can't be mentioned either.

From a PR point of view you can imagine how frustrating it is for the PM to be forced once again to talk up the economy - the only issue that everyone knows he has nothing to do with.

That said, Blair bravely went back on the campaign trail last weekend.

This was largely because there were no other ministers out 'on the knocker' for fear of being asked about John Prescott.

There is little more one can add to the Deputy PM's sorry saga, except to say that it matters little whether he resigns or is sacked because his reputation, even among party activists, has been ruined.

Although Clarke's gaffe is the one that most irritates the electorate - who tend to worry more about the inappropriate release of dangerous criminals than randy deputy PMs - that is not the case among Labour loyalists.

The latter are mortified with Prescott, and these are the people upon whom the party relies to get the vote out during local elections.

What summed it all up for me was a comment I heard this week from a minor Labour MP. When asked about the difficulties ministers were facing when going out to the doorsteps, he simply replied: 'I have no idea. We can't get anyone to go out and canvass for us.'

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