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Monday, 29 January, 2001, 12:33 GMT
Mandelson: Phone call that lit the fuse
Peter Mandelson
Peter Mandelson resigned last week
At the centre of the passport row that has rocked the government and cost Tony Blair his closest political ally is whether or not Peter Mandelson telephoned a ministerial colleague to discuss a passport application from Indian billionaire Srichand Hinduja.

According to the Home Office, the former Northern Ireland Secretary telephoned the then Immigration Minister Mike O'Brien in June 1998 to discuss Mr Hinduja's application.

While all sides are adamant that no strings were pulled, there are conflicting views concerning the phone call and who exactly was at the end of the line.

It is these discrepancies that led to Mr Mandelson's unprecedented second resignation in disgrace from the cabinet.

News of the 1998 telephone conversation came to light as a result of a written parliamentary question tabled by Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker.

That question, and the answer to it, led journalists from The Observer newspaper to contact Mr Mandelson to ask him if he had telephoned Mike O'Brien about the Hinduja passport application.

Mandelson informed

Mr Mandelson had been informed of the answer days before it was actually published.

Home Secretary Jack Straw telephoned him to tell him that his name was included in the reply and that it made reference to a conversation he had with Mr O'Brien.

Jack Straw
Mr Straw told the prime minister about his call to Peter Mandelson
However, when Mr Mandelson was contacted by a journalist from The Observer newspaper he denied any involvement.

Speaking on Saturday 20 January, he said: "The matter was dealt with by my private secretary. At no time did I support or endorse this application for citizenship."

His position remained the same on Sunday when the story was published.

A statement issued through the Northern Ireland Office said: "Mr Mandelson did not assist in this passport application. He did not support or endorse this application, nor would he have considered doing so."

'No involvement'

That line was repeated by the prime minister's official spokesman when he briefed journalists on Monday morning.

"He did exactly what any other minister would do, which is to pass it to the relevant department, which is the Home Office," Alastair Campbell told Westminster journalists.

"Peter did not get involved - beyond being asked to get involved, which he did not."

That line was repeated by Culture Secretary Chris Smith when he was questioned on the issue in the House of Commons.

However, by Tuesday the minor controversy had erupted into a full scale crisis.

Serious questions were being asked about Mr Mandelson's version of events after Mr O'Brien told Downing Street he remembered having the phone conversation with the Northern Ireland secretary.

Journalists misled

The admission forced the prime minister's official spokesman to admit to journalists that they had been misled the previous day.

"Yesterday I repeated that Peter's sole involvement was a call from his private secretary to the Home Office, which was Peter's recollection.

"Yesterday with the offices back up and running, Peter's office was able to look at it in further detail and was able to recollect he had a call with Home Office Minster Mike O'Brien in June 1998.

"Mike O'Brien has confirmed Peter Mandelson did not make representations on behalf of the brothers, or make representations on any potential application, and did not support or endorse it.

"The end result is precisely the same."

'Innocent inquiry'

Mr Mandelson then issued a statement on Tuesday afternoon saying he had made "an innocent inquiry" to the Home Office.

Sir Anthony Hammond QC
Sir Anthony started his inquiry last week
"'There was no passport application, no discussion between me and the Home Office of the merits of giving a passport, no support or endorsement by me of any future application.

"An innocent inquiry was made in a two-minute phone conversation, facilitated by civil servants and monitored by them. That is the beginning and end of the story. The rest is innuendo."

Wednesday's newspapers were livid. Mr Mandelson was called in to Downing Street to discuss the matter with the prime minister and "to establish the facts" of the case.

After the meeting he announced his resignation.

It has since emerged that Home Secretary Jack Straw telephoned Mr Blair the previous day telling him he had discussed the case and the 1998 telephone call with Mr Mandelson only the previous week.

Mr Mandelson's failure to remember events of two years ago may be forgiven - but forgetting a conversation he had just days previously appeared to be the final straw.

Mr Mandelson had departed from cabinet for the second time accused of failing to tell the truth.

'I'll fight back'

However, within days of his departure Mr Mandelson had revised his recollection of events.

In a confused article for the Sunday Times newspaper, he said civil servants who had worked with him at the Cabinet Office had checked their records and backed up his original version of events - that they and not he had placed the call to the Home Office.

That information has led Mr Mandelson to contact Sir Anthony Hammond QC, the man who is leading the government inquiry into the affair, in an attempt to clear his name.

Mr Mandelson has vowed "to reverse the error" and has claimed that Sir Anthony's report will show his version of events to be correct.

Such a conclusion would have grave consequences for the government. It would also give credence to the view that two minutes let alone a week is a long time in politics.

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