Doubts grew over the chances of Charles Clarke surviving as Home Secretary yesterday, despite his insistence that he was the best person to sort out the foreign prisoner release scandal.
Mr Clarke said he had faced far worse pressure in the aftermath of the July 7 terrorist attacks in London and vowed to get to grips with the problems bedevilling his department.
But as Labour chiefs brace themselves for heavy losses in Thursday's local council elections, he is fighting a desperate battle to keep his job in the Cabinet reshuffle, which is expected within the next week.
The Home Secretary's survival prospects took a further blow as it emerged that he had waited three weeks before telling Mr Blair of the scale of the bungle, which saw 1,023 foreign prisoners freed without deportation hearings. A defiant Mr Clarke told his local newspaper: "I have tried to deal with some fundamental issues. We have still got some challenges which still need to be completed and I think I am the best person to carry that through."
He said: "It doesn't remotely compare to the pressure of 7/7 and the subsequent decisions of that time and how we protect ourselves against the threats that are there."
He said his future depended on "my own strength of character," the support of Labour colleagues and most importantly on the support of the Prime Minister. "If I lost that support, that would be different. I hope I will continue as Home Secretary," he told the Eastern Daily Press.
The Home Office confirmed on Friday that at least five foreign criminals had committed offences after being freed. It is unable to say how many of the 79 most serious offenders have been rounded up following an intensive police operation, but it turned down requests for a Commons statement today on developments over the weekend.
Mr Clarke faced renewed embarrassment with the disclosure that he learnt on 30 March about the release of dangerous prisoners, but only told the Prime Minister on 21 April. The Home Office said the delay occurred while it was "working hard to clarify the situation".
The succession of damaging headlines over the foreign prisoners affair and the lurid revelations about John Prescott's personal life are seriously damaging Labour's standing just days before Thursday's local elections.
Mr Blair is preparing a cabinet reshuffle for after the elections, but its extent could depend on the results. If Mr Clarke survives, the worry for the Prime Minister is that his position could become untenable shortly afterwards if a foreign offender is convicted of a serious offence. Mr Blair has said that the Home Secretary's future "depends on what happens", adding that there could be "no excuses" for the mistaken release of the prisoners.
Senior Labour strategists denied the party was facing meltdown in the elections, insisting the party's vote was holding up relatively well in London.
One said: "We're doing everything we can to steer people towards local issues - these are local elections after all. The psychological impact of the last four days on our vote is hard to gauge - it very much depends whether the Home Office story stays in the headlines."
Last night the Conservatives renewed their attack on Mr Clarke. David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, accused him of "breathtaking complacency" over the affair.Reuse content