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Tuesday, 6 February, 2001, 13:39 GMT
Blair's test of strength over Vaz
Europe ministewr Keith Vaz
The Vaz affair has landed Blair with a dilemma
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

There used to be a grim inevitability about the process that led to the downfall of Tory politicians.

First they would declare their innocence - Jonathan Aitken even became toweringly self-righteous and spoke about using the "simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play" to clear his name.

Then their leader would offer them his or her full support and insist they still enjoyed their full confidence.

Next, the newspapers would reveal more alleged misdeeds and demand a resignation.

And finally, when the "scandals" refused to go away, the government's instinct for survival took over, the accused discovered their friends were slipping away - and they finally fell on their swords.

And many believe they can see the same process at work over the future of embattled Europe minister Keith Vaz.

Mr Vaz has insisted he has done nothing wrong in regard to either the so-called passports-for-favours row, or any of his other dealings.

Downing Street has continued to support him, with the prime minister's official spokesman declaring that the minister has rebutted all the claims made against him.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair has to be seen to be fair
In a sentence which also impacted on the resignation of Peter Mandelson - who has pledged to fight to clear his name - he told political journalists: "You are saying we shouldn't sack ministers where they have admitted wrongdoing but we should sack ministers where nothing has been proven."

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has talked of an anti-European agenda lurking behind some newspaper attacks on Mr Vaz.

It is also the case, however, that none of the charges so far levelled at Mr Vaz have really stuck.

So the fear amongst many MPs is that the whole row is turning into a trial of strength between newspapers and Downing Street.

It is claimed that, having seen off Mr Mandelson, some sections of the press have got a taste for blood and are determined to get Mr Vaz as well.

Like Mr Mandelson, Mr Vaz has a habit of winning enemies and there will be any number of people ready to contribute to his demise.

Caving in

The prime minister - already facing allegations from the Mandelson camp that he dumped him before establishing all the facts - is desperate not to be seen caving in to media pressure by sacking an innocent man.

Former cabinet minister Peter Mandelson
Mandelson claims he was bounced from offfice
But Mr Blair also knows that the longer this particular row goes on, the more damage it will do him in the current pre-election period.

That will add to the pressure on him to have a quiet word in Mr Vaz's ear and persuade him to "do the decent thing".

The minister could then chose to stand down temporarily - probably until after the next election - claiming he is doing it for the good of his party.

But that would instantly be seized on as an admission of guilt and hand the Tories another powerful propaganda weapon.

There is also another more worrying undercurrent about the whole Vaz affair. The suggestion, which is gaining ground in Westminster, is that Mr Vaz is the victim of a racist vendetta by some sections of the media.

Downing Street is not being drawn into this, but spokesmen are also notably refusing to deny such claims.

But leading Asians have now voiced their concerns in letters to national newspapers.

That adds another more sensitive element to the whole affair, particularly for a New Labour prime minister who prides himself on his determination to tackle all forms of racism.

The only thing certain in the whole affair is that Mr Vaz is in the pressure cooker and it remains to be seen whether Mr Blair can keep the lid from blowing off.

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See also:

05 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Downing Street moves to bolster Vaz
05 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Mandelson returns for fightback
06 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Asians rally to embattled Vaz
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