- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2006

LONDON — A national health service in turmoil, a sex scandal and the release from prison of rapists, murderers and pedophiles — all immigrants — have plunged Prime Minister Tony Blair and his ruling Labor Party into the worst crisis of nine years in power.

In a nation where immigration and crime have become hot-button issues, calls for Home Secretary Charles Clarke’s ouster reached a fever pitch this week when Mr. Clarke conceded that during the past seven years, more than 1,000 foreign convicts had been set free to roam the country.

Prison officials did so without considering whether the inmates should have been deported, said Mr. Clarke, who is Britain’s top law-enforcement official.

“The government should take responsibility when things go spectacularly wrong on its watch and that is what has happened here. If this is not a resigning issue, I simply do not know what is,” Nick Clegg, a spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats, told the British Broadcasting Corp.

A recent public opinion poll put the approval rating of Mr. Blair and his Labor Party at 32 percent, close to that of President Bush.

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt is also under fire over pending layoffs amid a budget shortfall of $1.75 billion in the national health system.

A third official, Mr. Blair’s deputy, John Prescott, has been pilloried in newspaper and television reports over a two-year affair with a secretary, in which government buildings were used for trysts.

The prime minister has refused to accept Mr. Clarke’s offer of resignation, has declined to ask Mrs. Hewitt for hers and says that the married Mr. Prescott’s behavior is a private matter.

As to his own political future, Mr. Blair said: “You know me well enough to know there’s a resilience that will see through the next day’s headlines.”

Political reporters have quoted sources close to the government as saying the prime minister has already penciled in a date in 2008 to vacate 10 Downing Street, in favor of Gordon Brown, currently chancellor of the exchequer, his treasury chief.

But even before the chaos of the three ministers, disenchantment with his regime had begun to set in, first over Britain’s involvement in Iraq, then over accusations that his government had handed out peerages and other honors to wealthy donors in exchange for “loans.”

Mr. Blair faces a test of his political resilience in local government elections May 4, a vote that some political analysts predict could see his Labor Party suffer a humiliating defeat.

A public opinion survey conducted by the ICM polling organization for the Guardian newspaper Tuesday showed that support for Mr. Blair’s Labor Party had dropped to just 32 percent.

It was Labor’s lowest public approval rating since Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative Party to a landslide victory in 1987 elections.

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