Blair calls on voters to ignore crisis and look at 'nine years of achievement'

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair has appealed to voters in tomorrow's local elections not to punish Labour for the Government's recent turmoil.

The Prime Minister also attempted to head off a new wave of demands from Labour MPs for him to stand down or at least announce his departure date if, as expected, the party suffers heavy losses in the polls.

Addressing the shop workers' union, Usdaw, in Blackpool, Mr Blair played the loyalty card by reminding his audience: "The third term of government is better than the fourth term of opposition."

Labour's election campaign has been overshadowed by the release of more than 1,000 foreign prisoners who were not considered for deportation, job cuts in the NHS and the revelation that John Prescott had an with his civil service diary secretary.

Mr Blair marked the ninth anniversary of winning power by urging voters to put the three crises into perspective. He said: "It has been difficult but nine days' headlines cannot obscure nine years of achievement."

He added: "No government ever fails to make mistakes. No government ever fails to encounter difficulties. But the question is, when you step back and you look at the big picture, not each and every detail of it, is there improvement happening?"

Mr Blair went on: "I don't doubt there are enormous challenges. There are huge problems to be overcome in our country but I also believe this country is stronger and fairer and better than it was in 1997. And it will be better still if we carry on the changes we want to make."

After defending the Government's record in his first speech to an individual union since becoming Prime Minister, he won a standing ovation from Usdaw, one of the most loyal unions.

Ministers are worried that Labour's performance tomorrow will be harmed by the three controversies and low morale among party workers. Some Labour councillors have distanced themselves from the Government and, in some cases, urged senior ministers not to campaign in their areas.

Chris Redmayne, the Labour leader of Crawley Borough Council in West Sussex, where the party is defending a majority of one, warned that it risked losing votes to the British National Party because of the foreign prisoners row.

Mr Redmayne said voters saw some senior ministers as "remote and detached" and "aloof". He predicted that the Prescott affair "will have an effect on how people see the Government, which will have an effect on the way people perceive Labour politicians at a local level."

Mr Prescott spoke to Mr Blair by telephone yesterday as allies of the Deputy Prime Minister dismissed speculation that he was planning to resign.

Jim Murphy, the Cabinet Office minister, said: "These election results will be difficult but we're confident that enough Labour voters will come out to vote and good Labour councillors will stay in power, and stay delivering on antisocial behaviour and council tax."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the elections should be a referendum on Labour. "This is about a lot more than nine days of bad headlines," he said.

"The Government has reached this position through bad policy, bad management, and bad judgment. It should not be nine years or nine days that the Prime Minister should be worried about - but the fact that his nine lives are almost used up."