John Prescott was under mounting pressure last night over his affair with his diary secretary after Tory MPs called for him to quit over allegations that he abused his position as Deputy Prime Minister.
Speculation at Westminster suggested Mr Prescott could stand down from the Cabinet before completing what he regards as his final service to Labour - ensuring an orderly transition from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown. Some MPs believe that, if there are further revelations about his private life, he might even stand down in the reshuffle expected after next week's council elections in England.
Mr Blair came out fighting after the Government's disastrous day on Wednesday, but the problems engulfing three of his senior ministers showed little sign of abating. Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, whose future is in the balance over the release of more than 1,000 foreign prison inmates without deportation hearings, had to defend crime statistics showing a rise in robbery and drugs offences.
Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, won a warmer reception from NHS employers in Birmingham than she received from angry nurses on Wednesday. But she suffered a setback when a Commons committee announced an inquiry into the deficits in NHS trusts which led to a wave of job cuts.
It also emerged that the number of infant school classes with more than 30 pupils has soared by 25 per cent in the past year - even though one of Labour's first acts on winning power in 1997 was to declare that such big classes would be illegal for pupils aged five to seven from 2001. Opposition MPs turned their guns on Mr Prescott. Derek Conway, a senior Tory MP, said Mr Prescott's two-year affair with the civil servant Tracey Temple was a "very public" matter rather than the private one described by Downing Street.
He put down Commons questions to the Prime Minister about the ministerial code of conduct regarding Mr Prescott, and asked what advice Mr Blair gave ministers about the presence of civil servants at election time. Mr Conway said: "This relates to Ms Temple's presence on Mr Prescott's battle bus."
In a question to Mr Prescott, he asked what role he played in appointing and allocating staff duties in his office. He has also written to Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, about the ministerial code. Mr Conway said: "She was a civil servant and the fact that she was working for him makes it a public matter and one of public concern. That is why he should go and why the Downing Street spin that this is a private matter just won't wash."
Mr Conway said an officer in the armed forces could face a court martial and dismissal for having an affair with a subordinate. "Why should it be different for an officer of the Crown to a minister of the Crown?" he asked. "There can't be one rule for the Blairites and one rule for the rest of the country."
The Tory MP Andrew Robathancomplained that Mr Prescott had dodged previous questions about guests at Dorneywood in Buckinghamshire, his official country residence, where he reportedly took Ms Temple.
The Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker has tabled a question about the use of Mr Prescott's official car to take Ms Temple to her hotel at 3.30am after an office party. "It is part of a wider pattern of an arrogance which ministers are displaying," he said.
Whitehall sources said action against Mr Prescott or Ms Temple was unlikely. Although relationships between ministers and civil servants are frowned on, they are not covered by the two codes.
Ms Temple is on leave from Mr Prescott's private office this week and will not return. She is expected to be offered a similar-level civil service job in an attempt to head off any claim for unfair dismissal, which could prove highly embarrassing for the Government if no action was taken against Mr Prescott.
Mr Blair defended his deputy after attending the Cabinet's weekly meeting. The Prime Minister said he was confident Mr Prescott had not breached the ministerial code.
In a BBC interview, Mr Blair admitted that Wednesday had not been a "great day" for his Government but dismissed comparisons with the Tories' Black Wednesday in 1992, saying people had "lost homes and jobs" as the pound slumped on the currency markets.
Mr Blair said: "In this business, in the media culture that we have today, where there's no problem that isn't a crisis, no difficulty that isn't a catastrophe, no week that isn't going to end up being the most terrible thing that's ever happened, you do the job, you get on with doing the job."