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Programme highlights Monday, 29 January, 2001, 15:47 GMT
Should Mandelson have resigned?
Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell
The passport row shows not sign of abating
Tony Blair stood up in the House of Commons last Wednesday afternoon, and declared that Peter Mandelson had done something wrong and had paid the penalty.

But what did he mean? What precisely was the crime?

The inquiry under Sir Anthony Hammond QC is still investigating the circumstances of the awarding of a passport to Srichand Hinduja in 1999.

Since Sir Anthony has not yet reported, then clearly no one can be blamed yet for any irregularity.

Sir Anthony Hammond
Sir Anthony Hammond: expected to interview ministers and officials in the Home Office
The logical conclusion is that Mr Mandelson was punished for what had happened in the previous few days - and specifically for misleading Alistair Campbell, and by extension the Prime Minister - about the nature of his involvement.

In particular, did he - or did he not - ring the Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien about Mr Hinduja's application?

If it turns out that he didn't, then he didn't lie, and may indeed - as he maintains in his self-justificatory Sunday Times article - have been driven from office unfairly.

The impact of that on Mr Campbell - and indeed Mr Blair - would be serious.

Penalty

The BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr, believes the enquiry will be authorised to range "reasonably widely" including Keith Vaz's involvement with the Hindujas before he became a minister.

So what did Peter Mandelson do wrong?


As I understand it this [Home Office] note simply says 'Mandelson Hinduja naturalisation'

Robert Harris
"I did make it clear that if people did something wrong then they would pay the penalty," explained the Prime Minister to the Commons last Wednesday

"And my right honorouble friend has paid the penality."

And that concentrates attention firmly on the events of the past ten days, and on the simple question, could Peter Mandelson have been right all along?

Phone call

The fog of doubt will not be dispelled until we know exactly what happened on that day in June 1998 when contacts of some kind took place between the Cabinet Office and the Home Office.

Everything hangs upon that. Peter Mandelson, in his article in the Sunday Times, says that when he was confronted by his accusers on Wednesday morning he was 'briefly persuaded' that he must have made a mistake.

They said he must have made a direct call to the Home Office Minister, Mike O'Brien, thus contradicting directly what he had told Alistair Campbell the weekend before.

Mandelson
Standing firm: Mr Mandelson insists he did not lie
On the basis, therefore of what Mr Mandelson calls 'summary exploration of the available evidence', he agreed to resign.

But what was that available evidence? Did the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, and the Lord Chancellor face Mr Mandelson with a full note, a tape or transcript of the conversation he - Mr Mandelson - insists he cannot recollect?

Mike O'Brien described his recollection of the call on Wednesday, saying Mr Mandelson's enquiries were "at all times perfectly proper".

And presumably that encouraged Mr O'Brien's boss, Jack Straw, to say yesterday that the telephone conversation had in fact taken place.

But Mr Straw has not yet explained exactly what evidence he has at his disposal.

Fight back

This morning - as part of his fight-back - Mr Mandelson's friend, the author Robert Harris, told the Today programme details of a note taken at the time.

"As I understand it this [Home Office] note simply says 'Mandelson Hinduja naturalisation'. None of us has seen this. It's not a tape recording or a full minute of what took place. It's just a scrawled line - as sentence," he said.


To establish what approaches were made to the Home Office in 1998 in connection with the possibility of an application for naturalisation by Mr SP Hinduja

Hammond enquiry terms of reference - Alistair Campbell
The World at One has learned that on Tuesday of last week, the day before the resignation, a senior civil servant - who was at the Cabinet Office, where Mr Mandelson was working at the crucial time in 1998 - was called by Downing Street and asked for any details about the Hinduja contacts.

He said he couldn't remember, but would investigate. When he did so, we understand that he found material 'not unfavourable to Peter Mandelson'.

He discovered that the initial call in June 1998 was indeed between civil servants, as Mr Mandelson has insisted.

And - more significantly - that it was the Home Office that suggested a direct conversation between Ministers. It's not clear whether that conversation ever took place.

The following morning - the morning of the day that Mr Mandelson resigned - the senior civil servant rang Downing Street to pass on his information, but was unable to speak to anyone involved in the meetings with Mr Mandelson.

Since then no-one from the Cabinet Office has made any further inquiries.

Waiting for answers

Ministers insist that we have to wait for the Hammond inquiry for further answers.

According to No 10 - the report will be published by the end of February and will be 'a proper and thorough investigation.'

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman, Alistair Campbell, said last week that its terms of reference were:

"To establish what approaches were made to the Home Office in 1998 in connection with the possibility of an application for naturalisation by Mr SP Hinduja and the full circumstances surrounding such approaches and the later grant of that application and to report to the Prime Minister".

It remains to be seen whether the inquiry delivers answers, and if a line can be drawn under the affair.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The LibDem party chairman, Malcolm Bruce
"Mr Mandelson may be a victim of his own reputation"
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