Clarke breaks his silence to accuse Blair of lacking 'purpose and direction'

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Charles Clarke has accused Tony Blair of losing his "purpose and direction" and attacked the actions of John Reid, his successor as Home Secretary.

Mr Clarke, sacked last month after more than 1,000 foreign prisoners were released without deportation hearings, made clear his anger over his dismissal from the Government and over Mr Reid's caustic assessment of the Home Office under his leadership.

Mr Clarke rejected as "fundamentally wrong" Mr Reid's judgement that parts of the Home Office were "not fit for purpose". He accused Mr Reid of pandering to the media by considering a new law on paedophiles and criticising individual judges over sentencing decisions, and said he regretted Mr Reid's decision to slow down his plans for police force mergers.

Mr Clarke fought back in a series of interviews in an attempt to clear his name and pave the way for an eventual return to the Cabinet, perhaps under Gordon Brown.

The former Home Secretary, previously regarded as a Blair loyalist, said he wanted the Prime Minister to remain in office for another two years, but raised doubts over whether that was possible. He tells The Times today: "I do think there is a sense of Tony having lost his sense of purpose and direction, so my advice to him is to recover that sense of purpose and direction and that remains the best option.

"What we are lacking at the moment is a sense of leadership and direction, so that can either be solved by Tony himself recovering in the way he has the capacity to do ­ that would still be the best solution ­ or by Gordon [Brown] being elected with that sense of leadership and direction himself.

"My preferred option remains that Tony Blair stays as leader and Prime Minister to complete the execution of the manifesto upon which he was elected in 2005 and then hands over to a new leader who would prepare the manifesto for 2009-10."

Mr Clarke told the BBC he was "angry and frustrated" when Mr Blair reneged on a pledge that he would have two or three years to push through the reforms they agreed were needed at the Home Office. He accused the Prime Minister of putting political expediency before his long-term reform by sacking him.

On Radio 4's On the Ropes programme, to be broadcast today, Mr Clarke said there were "a lot of doubts" about whether Mr Blair could recover "leadership, authority and direction" because he had been "damaged by recent events". While he wanted Mr Blair to do so, he would also be "perfectly happy" for Gordon Brown to succeed him.

He said New Labour's spin had had a "corrosive" effect on politics.

Mr Clarke's strongest criticism was reserved for Mr Reid. Although the two men are long-time allies, Mr Clarke believes his successor has unfairly undermined his record in his strong criticism of the Home Office in what has been called his "year zero" approach.

Interviewed on the BBC's Ten O'Clock News and Newsnight programmes last night, Mr Clarke said he had pleaded with Mr Reid not to tell MPs that parts of the Home Office were "not fit for purpose".

He went on: "It was a department which had its problems. But I think [its] problems were being addressed, and could easily have been solved over the kind of couple-of-year timeframe that I described.

"The overall picture of a department not fit for purpose in any of the respects he described I think is and was fundamentally wrong, and I think John was wrong to use those descriptions."

Mr Clarke suggested Mr Reid should have resisted tabloid newspaper pressure to consider a "Megan's law" under which people would be able to find out whether paedophiles were living in their areas. "The Home Secretary should not simply be running on the bandwagon of some particular media campaign," he said.

He suggested Mr Reid should not have said it was unduly lenient for Craig Sweeney, a paedophile, to be eligible for release after just over five years, recalling that he did not comment on individual cases when he was Home Secretary.

On his talks with Mr Blair when he was sacked, Mr Clarke said: "He said he didn't want me to continue as Home Secretary, so I said, 'Well, I'm not ready to take another job.' He did offer me other jobs ... and I felt I shouldn't accept them because I had pledged to myself first of all, but also to Parliament and to the country that I would resolve this [foreign prisoners] problem."

Mr Clarke said that "it is not a condition of my life that I should serve in a government again in any form".

In a letter to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, which is investigating the affair, Mr Clarke denied that he was aware of the foreign prisoner problem as long ago as last July. He implicitly blamed officials for not telling ministers until 17 March. However, he admitted that it would have been better if the process of tracking down the released prisoners had begun at least three weeks earlier, when he received a report from officials on 31 March.

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