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The BBC's Jonathan Beale
"Tony Blair is supporting Peter Mandelson"
 real 56k

Peter Mandelson MP, Northern Ireland Secretary
"Home Office ministers receive enquiries from MPs all the time"
 real 56k

The BBC's Nicholas Jones
"You can see how difficult this is for the government to explain"
 real 28k

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP
"It is quite clear, I was misled"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 24 January, 2001, 11:28 GMT
Blair summons Mandelson
Peter Mandelson
The Dome returns to haunt Peter Mandelson
Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson has held face-to-face talks with Tony Blair to "establish the facts" of his involvement with the Hinduja passport application, Downing Street has revealed.

But Mr Blair's spokesman refused to confirm whether the Northern Ireland Secretary would still be in his job by the end of the day.

The meeting came after ministers spent the morning defending Mr Mandelson 24 hours after the Northern Ireland secretary admitted - despite earlier Downing Street denials - ringing the Home Office about a controversial billionaire's passport application.

It seems to me that because in June 1998 sponsorship was offered by the Hinduja Foundation for the Dome that coincided with a point where Mr Mandelson made his telephone call

Andrew Lansley
But the row continues to grow over whether he pulled strings to help Srichand Hinduja secure a British passport after he agreed to sponsor the Millennium Dome.

Mr Mandelson faces the Commons later on Wednesday when he is due to answer Northern Ireland questions, shortly before Tony Blair receives what is expected to be a rough ride over the actions of his close confidant at prime minister's questions.

Conservative Cabinet Office spokesman Andrew Lansley has called for an inquiry into Mr Hinduja's passport application.

"It seems to me that because in June 1998 sponsorship was offered by the Hinduja Foundation for the Dome that coincided with a point where Mr Mandelson made his telephone call to [Home Office Minister] Mike O'Brien," he said.

'Above board'

After a day in which Labour voices willing to back the Northern Ireland secretary were thin on the ground, Scottish Secretary John Reid insisted that Mr Mandelson's actions were entirely above board.

Srichand Hinduja
Mr Hinduja is said to have approached Mr Mandelson
And Home Office Minister Charles Clarke told the BBC: "As with anything that comes along, it is far and away the best thing to tell the full story as openly as possible at the outset."

"The one thing I am certain of is that the Home Office's processes in relation to this have been extremely rigorous and will continue to be."

After days of damaging reports on the nature of Mr Mandelson's precise involvement in Mr Hinduja's passport application, the cabinet minister had launched his own defence with a round of interviews on Tuesday.

He insisted he had not pulled any strings to influence the Home Office decision to grant the passport after Mr Hinduja and his brother, Gopichand, had raised the prospect of significant Dome sponsorship.

The passport was granted soon after the donation had been pledged.

Denials, U-turns and contradictions

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have called into question Mr Mandelson's fitness to serve in the cabinet.

We want to be convinced that nothing improper took place

Michael Ancram
On Monday, Downing Street had insisted that Mr Mandelson had made no direct approach to the Home Office and that Mr Hinduja's query over his passport applicaitonr had been dealt with at civil servant level.

But the following day the prime minister's official spokesman admitted that in fact Mr Mandelson had personally discussed the issue over the telephone with Mr O'Brien.

The Hinduja brothers had already suggested financing the Dome's faith zone to the tune of 1m when Mr Mandelson intervened in June 1998.

Mr Mandelson stressed he had not endorsed the passport application - Mr Hinduja had previously been turned down - but simply asked Mr O'Brien whether it could be resubmitted under new rules.

Mike O'Brien
The former immigration minister was approached
Mr Mandelson insisted there was "no wink or nudge" involved in the "innocent inquiry" he made on Mr Hinduja's behalf.

The result of the row so far has been damaging newspaper headlines calling Labour's onetime spin doctor supreme a liar and demanding his resignation.

'Common sense by-pass'

Conservative Party Chairman Michael Ancram called on all the records relating to the affair to be made public, including civil service notes.

"Mr Mandelson is a past master at shifting his ground and having the truth dragged out of him inch by inch," he told the BBC.

"We want to be convinced that nothing improper took place."

People now wanted to know how long Mr Blair was going to "stand alongside his slippery friend", Mr Ancram added.

Srichand Hinduja, Cherie and Tony Blair
The Blairs with Hinduja
Liberal Democrat Norman Baker said that the episode was looking "increasingly murky for Mr Mandelson" and that the government appeared to be backtracking.

"Clearly Mr Mandelson is in this deeper than first admitted. He has clearly behaved improperly for a minister.

"The prime minister should reflect on whether he merits a cabinet post if Labour is re-elected."

Independent MP Martin Bell accused Mr Mandelson of having had "a common sense by-pass".

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See also:

22 Jan 01 | South Asia
Hindujas questioned by detectives
24 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Mandelson hits back in passport row
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