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British minister in punch-up as poll turns nasty

British minister in punch-up as poll turns nasty

Fists flew as Britain's general election campaign turned nasty. Protesters wrestled Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to the ground and the fiery Labour politician punched a demonstrator.

Dubbed the "bruiser" of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour government for his combative, straight-talking style, Prescott was hit with an egg shortly after arriving in Rhyl in Wales on Wednesday to campaign for the June 7 election.

Prescott lashed out with his fist when a man lunged at him but was then forced down onto a low brick wall by protesters campaigning against high fuel prices and the government's countryside policies, witnesses said.

Police said they had arrested a man in connection with the fracas.

"In the melee...I clearly defended myself," Prescott said in a statement.

The Rhyl fight occurred on a bad day for Blair, who was harangued by an angry voter demanding better care for her cancer-stricken partner.

It was meant to be a day when Blair grabbed the headlines with the launch of Labour's manifesto and his agenda for a second term.

But there were more bad headlines to come when Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw was heckled by his audience in Blackpool in northwest England. There was no point in calling the police - they were the police.

Opposition Conservative leader William Hague suffered too when he was jostled and forced by hecklers to curtail a walkabout in the English Midlands.

LACKLUSTRE CAMPAIGN SET ALIGHT

Wednesday's stormy electioneering set a so far lacklustre campaign alight, but new opinion polls suggested Blair was still holding on to a handsome lead or around 15-20 points that would ensure a landslide victory.

Many polls suggest Blair could even improve on his 1997 landslide of a 179-seat majority in the 659-seat House of Commons.

At a hospital in the English Midlands city of Birmingham, Sandra Storer, 38, confronted Blair and accused his government of failing to provide proper care for her cancer patient partner.

"My partner is very, very ill," she said, jabbing her finger at Blair and blocking his path for several minutes. "You're just not giving them the money. All you do is walk away," she said.

Blair looked flustered. "There is extra investment," he said. "But we fully understand there is a lot to do."

In its manifesto, Labour pledged economic stability at home but left unanswered the question of whether Britain would join Europe's single currency.

Labour election blueprint made a case for two more terms in power, offering policies to cover the next 10 years.

But it made no change to Blair's wait-and-see policy on whether or not to join the euro and also hedged its position on controversial U.S. plans for a missile defence system.


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