Tough week gets worse for embattled Prime Minister

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"We can't have another eight months of this," one minister sighed as Tony Blair's latest attempt to carve out a positive legacy was overshadowed by yet another crisis over Iraq.

The Prime Minister hoped that progress at yesterday's talks on Northern Ireland would dominate the headlines. Instead, he faced questions about remarks by the head of the Army, who talked about the need for Britain to withdraw from Iraq, at a press conference meant to focus on the Northern Ireland talks.

Although General Sir Richard Dannatt spoke from the heart, his challenge to his political masters was seen as a symptom of Mr Blair's waning authority. "There is a fin de siècle feeling creeping in," one minister said last night. "Discipline has broken down and the Government is drifting."

As the euphoria over Mr Blair's farewell speech to Labour's annual conference fades, his attempt to enjoy a long goodbye lasting until next summer is going to be hard to achieve. Mr Blair was skewered by David Cameron at Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions. There was a lack of a coherent government line after Jack Straw's remark that he preferred Muslim women to remove their veils, and the newspaper serialisation of David Blunkett's diaries has revealed cabinet splits over the Iraq invasion.

There is also grumbling that Mr Blair has failed to "get a grip" on the financial problems in the NHS, allowing the Tories to run a campaign against cuts. Labour launched a belated fightback yesterday.

Next week Mr Blair will try to show he has not run out of steam by fleshing out the "39 steps" he intends to take on policy before he departs and setting up four cabinet groups on long-term policy challenges. But as one Labour MP put it: "It's a bit late for a relaunch."

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