By FRANCESCA MOLD political reporter
The Prime Minister's attempts to extricate herself from her self-inflicted painting scandal by smearing other MPs backfired yesterday, forcing Helen Clark into two embarrassing backdowns.
Having accused other politicians of also passing off artwork by others as their own, the Prime Minister, under pressure to name names, finally admitted she was not referring to any "existing" MP.
She then had to accept she was wrong in accusing Act MP Rodney Hide of tipping off the media to the charity artwork scandal.
It was one of the few times Helen Clark has appeared distinctly uncomfortable in the House. She looked down at her papers and shook her head yesterday as Opposition MPs attacked her credibility and accused her of dishonesty.
The roasting came after two days of bad publicity over Helen Clark's confession that she had signed artworks done by staff and others. Charities auctioned the works.
Helen Clark has said she did not have time to do the work herself but did not want to let charities down.
She has offered to reimburse people who bought the works thinking she had created them.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister lashed out at critics, suggesting others had done the same thing.
"I'm not naming names but I'm well aware that this is not a practice that's unique to either MPs or other so-called celebrities," she said.
Helen Clark then accused the Opposition of conducting a smear campaign by leaking the story to the media. She pointed the finger at the "usual suspects", Mr Hide and National's Murray McCully.
National leader Bill English described Helen Clark's behaviour as disgraceful.
"I have never seen such slithery dishonesty from a leader of our country," he said.
National has written to Speaker Jonathan Hunt raising the Prime Minister's allegations as a possible breach of parliamentary privilege.
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said Helen Clark had publicly accused other MPs of what was essentially a crime and a matter of fraud.
"She has implicated every other MP as potential criminals and yet is not prepared now today to say who she is talking about."
Helen Clark said the advice she had been given about other MPs did not relate to a sitting member, but "I have every reason for what I say".
The Prime Minister accepted a denial from Mr Hide that he aided the publication of the artwork story.