27/04/2006

Minister denies Cabinet 'meltdown'

Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton has stressed that the government is not in "meltdown" after a series of controversies hit several Cabinet ministers this week.

Yesterday was referred to "Black Wednesday" for Tony Blair's government as Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt faced angry hecklers at a nurses conference, Home Secretary Charles Clarke faced calls to resign in a row over foreign prisoners and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott admitted to having an affair.

However, Mr Hutton rejected comparisons with the final days of John Major's Conservative government. Speaking on the 'Today' programme on BBC Radio 4, Mr Hutton said:"It is a massive exaggeration to say that the government is in a meltdown". He said that the Labour government were not the "victim of events" and said that the difficulties faced by the party were due to them not postponing difficult decisions.

Ms Hewitt was faced by hecklers at two conferences of health workers this week, angry at controversial government reforms and thousands of recent NHS job cuts.

Mr Clarke was forced to apologise when it was revealed that more than 1,000 foreign prisoners, including murderers and rapists, had been freed in the UK without being considered for deportation.

The Home Secretary faced calls to resign yesterday and his position was further weakened by the revelation that there could be as many as 1,500 more foreign prisoners in England and Wales than previously thought.

The Home Office admitted that there were more than 900 prisoners in England and Wales who had no nationality recorded, while Home Office sources also told the 'Today' programme that a further 600 prisoners had falsely claimed to be British.

Mr Prescott also admitted to having a two-year affair with one of his secretaries in a newspaper interview yesterday.

Mr Blair held a Cabinet meeting on Thursday morning in an attempt to rally his ministers following a difficult week. His spokesperson said that the meeting was "like any other" .

It has been reported that the leaders of two Labour groups on city councils had written to Mr Blair urging him to resign. However, Mr Hutton denied any knowledge of such letters and told 'Today' that he hoped Mr Blair would serve his full term.

(KMcA/CD)

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