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Backlash begins to hurt Blair

London, Sept. 7 (Reuters): More voters think Prime Minister Tony Blair should quit than back him, according to a poll published today as the British leader grapples with his worst political crisis in six years.

The survey in the Mail on Sunday newspaper showed 43 per cent of those polled believed Blair should resign over the suicide of a weapons expert at the heart of a furious row over the government’s reasons for going to war in Iraq.

Forty two per cent believed he should stay in office and 15 per cent were undecided, according to the YouGov poll which is the first to indicate more voters are against Blair than for him.

It was taken the day after the judicial inquiry into the death of scientist David Kelly adjourned for 10 days to allow Judge Lord Hutton to decide which witnesses to recall. The poll will come as a further blow for the once invincible leader of a Labour government with an unassailable parliamentary majority who has seen his personal trust ratings slump since the war to oust Saddam Hussein and who is facing a crescendo of criticism over his policies on education, health and crime.

Health minister John Reid acknowledged today that the government had an image problem. “Do I think that we have a problem with trust' Yes we do have a problem with trust,” he told BBC Television.

Kelly, whose name was leaked by the government as the source of a BBC report accusing Blair’s office of exaggerating the threat posed by Iraq’s banned weapons, slit his wrist two days after a humiliating grilling by a parliamentary committee.

His wife testified to the intense strain Kelly had been under and his sense of betrayal by his government employers.

Her moving testimony on Monday came just days after Blair took the stand, taking responsibility for the affair but rejecting the allegations and stating that if the charge of having knowingly misled the country was proven he should resign.

But Blair is not only under fire from political opponents.

Increasingly militant trades unionists — the former backbone of the Labour Party — have gone on the offensive, as have some of Blair’s own former cabinet ministers.

Former international development secretary Clare Short, who quit her post in May because she disapproved of the war in Iraq, wrote in the Independent on Sunday newspaper that Blair should stand by his own words over the Kelly affair.

“The Prime Minister has told us that the claim that he had knowingly exaggerated the threat from Iraqi chemical and biological weapons would be a resignation issue. It is now clear that the threat was exaggerated,” she said. Short, a maverick with a track record of speaking her mind, accused Blair and his chief aide Alastair Campbell, who quit a week ago, of effectively mounting a coup in the party, imposing their own policies by bludgeoning their opponents and lying.

“Beneath the smiling demeanour, (there is) a ruthlessness that is accompanied by a lack of respect for proper procedure, and a willingness to be ‘economical with the actuality’,” she wrote. “The cabinet has not functioned as a decision-making body since 1997.”

Her attack followed an article yesterday by former environment minister Michael Meacher, who left the cabinet in June, in which he said Washington had known about the September 11, 2001 attacks but done nothing to prevent them as they were a perfect pretext for embarking on a long-planned war to get access to oil.

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