Blair says he could drop backing for Cabinet ally if more crimes revealed

Prime Minister Tony Blair said he still backs his embattled home secretary but added that could change if any foreign former prisoners are found to have committed serious crimes after being released from jail.

Blair said in an interview published in Sunday editions of the News of the World newspaper that there were "no excuses" for the government's failure to screen 1,023 prisoners for possible deportation when they were released over the past seven years.

The releases have created a political furor since Home Secretary Charles Clarke disclosed them last week.

The news came during a disastrous few days for Blair's government Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott acknowledged an extramarital affair and Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt was booed by a roomful of nurses during a speech on layoffs.

The series of troubles could damage the fortunes of Blair's Labour Party in Thursday's local elections, the biggest elector test before the next national vote expected in 2009.

Clarke said Friday that five of the prisoners had been convicted of drug and violent crimes since being freed.

If further crimes are uncovered, it could increase the pressure on Clarke to step down.

Blair told the News of the World he believed Clarke should stay in his job to fix his department's problems but would not rule out changing his mind if one of those released was found to have committed a serious crime, the newspaper said.

"I don't think I'm going to speculate," it quoted the prime minister as saying. "It depends on what happens, what the reasons are", reports AP.


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