Clarke and Prescott battle to save their political careers

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John Prescott and Charles Clarke, the two heavyweight cabinet ministers caught in twin political firestorms, have both vowed to stay on and tough out one of the worst crises to engulf Tony Blair's Government.

A blizzard of revelations about the two ministers over the weekend has left hundreds of Labour councillors around the country fearing for their political futures as opinion polls suggest that voters will punish the Government in Thursday's council elections. A bad result for Labour may force a reluctant Mr Blair to sacrifice at least one senior cabinet colleague.

There was growing speculation yesterday that Mr Clarke will be out of office by the weekend - possibly with the consolation prize of a lesser cabinet job - but close friends of the Home Secretary insisted he is determined to stay put. He believes it is up to him to sort out the scandal of hundreds of foreign prisoners who were allowed to stay in the UK after completing their prison sentences when they should have been deported.

The Prime Minister added to the uncertainty in an interview with the News of the World. He said he was "not going to speculate" on whether Mr Clarke would be sacked if a serious crime was committed by a released prisoner. "It depends on what happens, what the reasons are," he added.

Mr Prescott has been told by his wife, Pauline, and his two children that he should stay in his job despite days of humiliating revelations about his affair with a civil servant, and about other women. The Deputy Prime Minister spent the weekend at his family home in Hull patching together his 46-year marriage, fortified by messages from Mr Blair and Gordon Brown, who want him to stay to ensure a smooth transition of power when the Prime Minister carries out his pledge to leave office before the next election.

Dick Caborn, the Sports minister, who has been a close friend and ally of Mr Prescott for more than 20 years, said yesterday: "He realises that he made a very big mistake at the domestic level. He really, really does understand that. He's obviously very upset about it. At the family level, it's a very big issue, and that's why he is now with Pauline.

"But I can tell you very clearly he is not going to resign. There is no misuse of ministerial power involved. There is nothing political in it. I know 'Prescott to Resign' is a good story and people will write that whatever anyone says, but it's simply untrue. Pauline and the kids are fully supportive of him in that."

Mr Prescott has admitted an affair with a 43-year-old civil servant, Tracey Temple, who was employed in his private office. Yesterday, extracts from her diary were published in The Mail on Sunday, which bought them for a six-figure sum. Mr Prescott has said that he is taking the newspaper to the Press Complaints Commission over what he regards as an invasion of privacy.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have said that Mr Prescott's marital problems are a private matter, while they concentrate their fire on the Home Secretary. David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, described Mr Prescott's problems as "a Whitehall farce", but said that the chaos in the Home Office was a "national tragedy".

Other Tories took a harder line. Derek Conway, a former Tory whip, has written to the chief civil servant in Mr Prescott's department demanding an inquiry into the possible misuse of ministerial cars. "Ms Temple reveals in her diary extracts that the Government Car Service ferried her about in the dead of night from her sexual trysts with the Deputy Prime Minister," his letter said. He added that the car pool is "a publicly funded service which exists so that ministers can go about their public duty, not their personal liaisons".

Sir Alistair Graham, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, warned yesterday that Mr Prescott may have broken the ministerial code. "That's a matter for the Prime Minister, who is head of the Government and guardian of the ministerial code," he told the BBC.

Mr Clarke spent the weekend preparing a robust defence which he will present to MPs later in the week. One of the most damaging calls came yesterday from a woman who was raped at knifepoint by a foreign criminal allowed to stay in the UK after being freed from jail.

She was attacked in September 2004 near her home in Sheffield by Abdulrahmam Osman, a Somali, who had been released a year earlier after serving a prison sentence for robbery.

Mr Clarke will deny Tory claims that he was warned as early as last summer that foreign nationals were being released from British prisons without proper checks.

He will say that he first heard about the problem in November, and then he thought that it involved about 400 relatively minor offenders. He will claim that it was not until this Easter that he learnt that the scandal involved more than a thousand criminals.

'We were lucky we were never caught as we never shut door'

By Andy McSmith

John Prescott's political enemies will have scoured the diary of his former lover Tracey Temple yesterday looking for evidence that he had abused his high office, gave away government secrets, or at least made insulting remarks about a few fellow ministers.

Instead, what they found was graphic details of an office fling, conducted with an astonishing lack of discretion under the watchful eyes of civil servants and security guards.

Ms Temple told The Mail on Sunday: "We were very lucky we were never caught as we never shut the door. Seven civil servants worked right outside his office."

One reason they were able to escape undetected was because Ms Temple's job as the Deputy Prime Minister's diary secretary allowed him to summon her to his grace and favour flat above Admiralty House out of normal office hours.

She claimed that it was a secret known to none but the pair of them until her regular boyfriend, Barrie Williams, read her private dairy. He has told the Daily Mirror that he found her out because she talked in her sleep.

But the diary reveals that some of Mr Prescott's staff, including his long-serving political adviser Joan Hammell and his private secretary Della Georgeson, were alarmed by the way the Deputy Prime Minister was carrying on. One entry, describing another late-night office party, recorded that "Joan went off in a huff" and later that "Della + Joan had made a comment about watching me and the DPM". The next day's entry added: "Joan apparently also said that she has seen it all before!"

On that occasion, Ms Temple and Mr Prescott left the office party to nip up to the flat for a quick bout of oral sex, plus "another grope" in the lift as they went back to rejoin the staff.

Mr Prescott has admitted the affair, but claims that details in Ms Temple's diary have been invented to add to their market value. Her agent, the publicist Max Clifford, sold them to The Mail on Sunday for a sum believed to be at least £200,000.

Separately from the Temple allegations, it has also been reported that Mr Prescott had an affair with Sarah Bissett-Scott, who went to work for him in 1988 after he had been appointed Labour's transport spokesman. At the time, she was married with two children.

Trish McDaid, who worked for the Labour Party in 1993, has also alleged that she was sexually harassed by John Prescott. He has dismissed her claim as "completely and utterly untrue".

The Public's Verdict

Do you agree or disagree that this government is 'sleazy and incompetent'?

Agree: 57 per cent
Disagree: 32 per cent
Don't know: 11 per cent

Who would you vote for in a general election tomorrow?

Labour 32 per cent
Conservative 35 per cent
Lib Dem 18 per cent
Other 15 per cent

Would it help, hinder or make no difference to Labour if Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair now?

Help Labour 27 per cent
Harm Labour 18 per cent
No real difference 51 per cent
Don't know 4 per cent

How damaging to Labour is it that the health service under Patria Hewitt is laying off staff?

Very damaging 67 per cent
Fairly damaging 26 per cent
Not very 4 per cent
Not at all 2 per cent
Don't know 1 per cent

How damaging is it that the Home Office under Charles Clarke has failed to deport foreign criminals?

Very damaging 56 per cent
Fairly damaging 33 per cent
Not very 6 per cent
Not at all 4 per cent
Don't know 1 per cent

What aspects of Prescott's affair concern you?

Betrayal of wife 58 per cent
Using grace and favour home for affair 54 per cent
Taking Ms Temple on Labour election battle bus 49 per cent
Sexual relationship with junior aide 38 per cent
Betrayal of Ms Temple's partner 25 per cent

The Politicians' Verdict

* Alistair Darling, Transport Secretary: "In politics you have got to be able to maintain sufficient authority, you've got to be able for people to look at you on the television set and say, 'That guy speaks for me, he's got my support.' A thing like this - and it's not the first time politicians have had affairs of this sort - is very sad for Prescott and particularly for his wife and family. It's a personal matter that they are going to have to resolve."

* Lord Heseltine: "In terms of any public credibility, any ability to command the respect of the nation, the Blair years have come to a close. It is legitimate to say that a private affair is private, but we are not talking about the affair, we are talking about the behaviour of the Deputy Prime Minister. You simply cannot have a senior member of a government bringing that government into ridicule and contempt by the way in which that person behaves. That is what has happened."

* Tessa Jowell, Culture Secretary: "There is nobody who will have passed harsher judgement on John Prescott than John Prescott himself. It's easy to forget that politicians are also human beings. What he must be going through, what Pauline and his family must be going through, is close to hell. They should be given privacy to sort that out. The most important thing is to allow John Prescott to do his job as Deputy Prime Minister and his private life is his private life."

* Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat Home Office Spokesman: "Charles Clarke should resign, and the more I think about it the more convinced I am that he knows his position is outlandish and that he is facing death by a thousand cuts. We don't see any need to regard the John Prescott story as anything but a private matter."

* Alastair Campbell, Former communications chief for Tony Blair: " People today I think are probably a lot more interested in Wayne Rooney's foot than in any part of John Prescott's body."

The Pundits' Verdict

* John Lloyd, journalist: "For Prescott it is a private matter, it is his own business and I think that it is bad that a private matter should even be an issue for resignation. The three ministers in trouble are very different, but they keep being grouped together. Clarke's department has made a huge mistake, and if there are any more revelations of serious reoffences [from prisoners] then I think he will have to go."

* Stephen Pollard, David Blunkett's biographer: "I think they should both go. Clarke's situation is much the worst and he should go both for his incompetence and for misleading the public. Prescott is simply a buffoon who brings the office of the Deputy Prime Minister into contempt. He has now become an embarrassment."

* Joan Smith, columnist: "It is shocking that Clarke has clung on as long as he has. He knew months ago that his department was failing to do something basic to protect the public. The situation with Prescott is less clear. There is an awful tradition of men in powerful positions taking advantage of women, but whether it affects how he performs his job is not clear, but then, it is not clear what the Deputy Prime Minister does."

* Piers Morgan, journalist: "We have the Deputy Prime Minister demeaning his office in the most flagrant manner, Charles Clarke presiding over the worst Home Office blunder I can recall, and Patricia Hewitt saying the NHS has had its best year ever. The New Labour machine seems to think that as long as they can all hang on over the bank holiday weekend, the problem will go away.They should all resign."

* Dinos Chapman, artist: "The whole Government should go. Asking politicians to be anything other than power-crazed and self-serving is unrealistic. It is stupid to expect noble intentions from politicians. It is irrelevant if they stay or go, they will just be replaced by people equally as bad. I am utterly disillusioned with politics and any pretence that people make that they are in the job for our benefit."

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