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Blair defends deputy after fight

Prescott punch
Brawl: Prescott's punch connects  


LONDON, England -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has backed his deputy, John Prescott, after he was involved in an undignified scuffle with a protester.

Blair described the incident in north Wales in which Prescott punched a man who threw an egg at him as he arrived for a party rally in Rhyl, north Wales, as "regrettable," but refused to criticise the deputy prime minister.

The front pages of Thursday's national newspapers all featured the moment when Prescott punched a man who threw an egg at him as he arrived for a party rally in north Wales.

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Television pictures showed Prescott being then wrestled onto a wall before being freed by party officials. A man was later arrested.

The incident brought to life a general election that until Wednesday had been focused on tax issues and mudslinging, with Blair's ruling Labour Party being accused of stage-managing its campaign.

Blair told reporters at Labour's daily news conference on Thursday morning that Prescott regretted the whole incident ever happened.

The prime minister said Prescott felt a blow to the side of his head and in an "intimidating situation ... he reacted instinctively," pleading for a return to the "real and serious issues."

He added: "For the last seven years you get to know someone pretty well, and he has got very great strengths -- not least in his left arm."

A series of other confrontations between politicians and voters upset what until then had been criticised as a carefully stage-managed campaign by Labour, prompting newspaper commentators to sharpen their knives.

William Hague, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, said: "People have seen the new face of New Labour when things slip from their control."

Many newspapers criticised Prescott and said the protesters had highlighted issues that Labour was keen to avoid.

The Sun tabloid wrote in its opinion section that it could not condone attacks on minister, but added: "We also cannot defend him hitting members of the public. This is a democracy not a yobbo state."

The traditionally right-wing Daily Mail said many of the protesters spoke for the nation. The paper's comment section said: "This paper deplores violence of any kind, but such scenes are a telling indication of the deep anger felt about remote, arrogant politicians and their mendacious, manipulative spin doctors."

Prescott brawl
Prescott is pushed back by the protester  

The Daily Telegraph predicted that Prescott would have a less high-profile role after the election if Labour won, as opinion polls predict. "It (the scuffle) is not behaviour expected of a deputy prime minister -- certainly not on the day that Tony Blair launched his party manifesto.

"Labour will be watching anxiously the press and public reaction. But Mr Blair will be horrified that such a display of anger will have dominated the news bulletins and wrecked the coverage of the party's manifesto launch."

Prescott released a statement in which he defended his actions after the "frightening and regrettable" incident. He said: "I got off my bus into an already hostile crowd. I walked through all the jostling and I was attacked by an individual. In the melee that followed I clearly defended myself.

"I believe that someone is now being questioned by the police, and it would be quite improper and quite wrong to add any further comment," he said.

Blair: Election campaign
Blair: Election campaign "was certainly lively yesterday"  

The incident prompted calls from the opposition Tories for the deputy prime minister to resign.

Brendan Murphy, Conservative candidate for the Vale of Clwyd, said: "If politicians can't put up with things like that they shouldn't be in the job."

Other leading politicians were on the rough end of public opinion on Wednesday amid campaigning for the June 7 general election.

Blair himself was confronted in Birmingham by the angry partner of a cancer patient who accused Labour of failing the National Health Service.

Home Secretary Jack Straw met a similarly hostile reception when police officers jeered and slow clapped as he addressed the Police Federation Annual Conference in Blackpool.

Prescott punch was featured on front page of every newspaper
Prescott punch was featured on front page of every newspaper  

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson, who was forced to resign earlier this year over his alleged links to a controversial Indian businessman, also stormed off a TV programme when asked about his view of Chancellor Gordon Brown's handling of the election campaign.

Opposition Conservative leader William Hague was also heckled as he campaigned in Wolverhampton, central England. Surrounded by a hostile crowd Hague and his wife cut short a walkabout.

The incidents were in stark contrast to the campaign's first week of carefully managed press conferences and walkabouts.

Blair's Labour Party won power in a 1997 landslide and early opinion polls show him heavily favoured to take this election too.







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