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British PM Blair shaken after "Black Wednesday"

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, Apr 27 (Reuters) British Prime Minister Tony Blair faced the challenge today of restoring his Labour Party's authority as a government after it was engulfed in scandal and crisis just a week ahead of crucial local elections.

The man once dubbed ''Teflon Tony'' for his ability to shrug off political dirt, woke up to a slew of headlines which screamed of a ''triple whammy'' for ''a government in meltdown''.

Newspapers cleared their pages to detail the three crises which blew up barely a week before elections seen as a test of Blair's authority.

On ''Black Wednesday'', Blair's deputy admitted having an affair, his home affairs minister, a key ally, offered to resign over a prisons debacle and his health minister was jeered by nurses angry about Labour's flagship health reform.

''It is possible that Tony Blair has had worse days as prime minister,'' the Labour-supporting Times newspaper said in an editorial. ''It is not immediately evident when they might have been.'' A year after he overcame criticism of his support for the Iraq war to win a third straight election, Blair is under pressure to rebuild support for his party.

According to one opinion poll this week, Labour support has fallen to its lowest point since 1987, when Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party was in power.

Blair has endured weeks of opposition attacks over his party's admission that it accepted big loans from 12 businessmen, some of whom were later nominated for seats in the unelected upper house of parliament.

The row is an embarrassment for a party which took power in 1997 pledging to be ''whiter than white'' after sleaze allegations damaged the previous Conservative government.

Blair's deputy, John Prescott, was forced to apologise yesterday after admitting to an affair with one of his secretaries.

''SYSTEMIC FAILURE'' Home Secretary Charles Clarke was next to apologise after his ministry allowed more than 1,000 foreign prisoners, including rapists and murderers, to walk free without considering them for deportation.

Blair told parliament the system had been ''seriously and fundamentally at fault'' for years.

''There has been systemic failure ... over a very long period of time,'' he said.

His government has made much of its pledge to cut crime and expel foreigners it regards as a security threat.

The third embarrassment for Labour saw Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt jeered by nurses at a conference as she tried to explain her party's policy on public healthcare debts.

Unions have criticised her for saying the state-owned National Health Service enjoyed its best year ever, despite a financial crisis which has led to thousands of job cuts.

REUTERS SRS RN0758

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