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EDITIONS
Monday, 29 January, 2001, 17:44 GMT
Mandelson inquiry 'over in weeks'
Former close confidants Mandelson, Blair and Campbell
The independent inquiry into the passport saga which triggered Peter Mandelson's downfall will be completed in a matter of weeks, Downing Street has said.


New Labour is now, and has always been, about spin and media deadlines, about one-upmanship and back-stabbing, about helping cronies while ignoring the interests of the mainstream majority


William Hague
Number 10 also confirmed that the inquiry's chairman, Sir Anthony Hammond QC, is authorised to look into any aspect of the affair.

But Conservative leader William Hague has sought to increase the pressure on the government with a demand that Sir Anthony's report should not be used as a "smokescreen" to block MPs from questioning ministers about the affair before its publication.

Mr Hague called on Prime Minister Tony Blair to issue a statement reconfirming his "full confidence" in Europe Minister Keith Vaz - whose own actions in the Hinduja passport saga are under the spotlight - or sack him forthwith.

Conflicting claims

News of the inquiry's timetable emerged on Monday as Labour battled to prevent the row over Mr Mandelson's enforced departure from the cabinet from spiralling out of control following his weekend fightback.


The prime minister must also answer legitimate questions from MPs and journalists rather than trying to kick the affair into the long grass

Norman Baker MP
After a series of conflicting claims from all sides over his resignation, little further official information was given out by a government keen to take the heat out of the affair.

But the controversy was stoked by author Robert Harris - a close confidant of Mr Mandelson - who revealed that his friend blames the prime minister's official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, for his second cabinet resignation in two years.

Mr Harris's comments followed Mr Mandelson's Sunday newspaper article setting out his version of events - which, far from clarifying his actions in the Hinduja passport affair, only sowed further confusion.

Campbell and Mandelson
Alastair Campbell (left) insists he and Mandelson are still friends
Mr Harris said Mr Mandelson felt "browbeaten" on Wednesday morning into accepting he had indeed made the crucial telephone call to Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien about a passport application from Indian billionaire Srichand Hinduja.

According to Mr Harris, because Mr Campbell was in a rush to brief journalists on the affair, information from a former Mandelson aide which could have supported his version of events was never heard.

"I think that certainly it was unfortunate, to put it mildly, that the whole of this affair seems to have turned on having news ready to give to the morning lobby meeting at 11 O'clock in Downing Street on Wednesday," said Mr Harris.

Hague: 'Get a grip'

Meanwhile, Mr Hague used a speech in Cardiff to attack what the Tory leader describes as the "bitter civil war now consuming the most senior members of the government".

Calling on Mr Blair to "get a grip" on the affair and to back or sack Mr Vaz, Mr Hague said that it had "laid bare the true deceit of New Labour". 

"They always claimed they were the People's Party, but it is clear that New Labour is now, and has always been, about spin and media deadlines, about one-upmanship and back-stabbing, about helping cronies while ignoring the interests of the mainstream majority." .

Fate sealed

Srichand Hinduja: His passport application lies at the heart of the saga
Monday's government challenge to Mr Mandelson's fightback was led by Home Secretary Jack Straw, who is understood to have called Mr Blair on the eve of the former Northern Ireland secretary's resignation to point out inconsistencies in his colleague's statements - helping to seal his fate.

The assault was taken up by Health Secretary Alan Milburn who said that although the resignation was a "tragedy" for Mr Mandelson, "life goes on and the government goes on".

Despite the recriminations - dubbed an "assassination festival" by Labour MP Austin Mitchell - Mr Campbell has insisted he still regards Mr Mandelson as a friend.

Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, whose parliamentary questions lit the fuse that led to Mr Mandelson's resignation, called on Sir Anthony's inquiry to also look at events following the Hartlepool MP's resignation.

He added that the prime minister himself must also answer "legitimate questions" on the saga now "rather than trying to kick the affair into the long grass".

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's John Pienaar
"The labour hierarchy has lined up against Mr Mandelson"
The BBC's Andrew Marr
"A couple of the papers have got their teeth into Mr Vaz"

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29 Jan 01 | UK Politics
28 Jan 01 | UK Politics
28 Jan 01 | UK Politics
28 Jan 01 | UK Politics
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