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UK's Blair government is sleazy, incompetent -poll

By Staff
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LONDON, Apr 30 (Reuters) British Prime Minister Tony Blair, struggling to overcome two major ministerial scandals, suffered a fresh blow today when a poll showed most people think his Labour government is ''sleazy and incompetent''.

The poll for the Sunday Times, which also shows a slide in his personal ratings to a historic low, comes just five days before local elections that are seen as a test of how long Blair can cling on to power.

Blair has said he will not stand for a fourth term at the next election, expected in 2009, but it is unclear when he will step aside. Finance Minister Gordon Brown is his most likely successor.

The poll comes as two of Blair's closest cabinet allies are in deep trouble.

Opposition parties and the media have called on Home Secretary Charles Clarke to resign after he acknowledged 1,023 foreign prisoners, including murderers and rapists, had been freed when they should have been considered for deportation.

His position deteriorated on Friday when he said five of those released had committed new crimes.

Blair seemed to give only qualified support to Clarke in an interview with the News of the World. He said he did not want to speculate and that Clarke's future ''depends on what happens''.

But Blair's office insisted the prime minister ''strongly supports'' Clarke, who has vowed to stay to sort out the mess.

POLL DIP The YouGov poll showed 57 percent of respondents said Blair's government was ''sleazy and incompetent''. His personal ratings also slipped to their lowest level since taking over as Labour leader 12 years ago, with 64 percent of those surveyed saying he was doing badly.

To compound Blair's problems, the Mail on Sunday newspaer printed lurid details of an affair Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has admitted to having with one of his secretaries.

With his image undermined by humiliating revelations, many commentators say his position in government looks precarious.

Prescott, a key cabinet member due to his links with the left of the party, is vulnerable as he was scathing of scandals committed by Conservatives when they were in power. He once said that morality for the Conservatives meant not getting caught.

But Blair's office said Prescott's affair was a private matter and the prime minister had full confidence in his deputy.

Blair himself is embroiled in a ''cash for favours'' row despite pledging to be ''whiter than white'' when Labour took power in 1997.

A poor performance for Labour in Thursday's local elections could increase the pressure on him to stand down sooner rather than later, analysts say.

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