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Friday, 9 March, 2001, 14:08 GMT
Passports inquiry turns heat on Blair
Home Secretary Jack Straw and Prime Minister Tony Blair
Straw and Blair now in spotlight
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

The Hammond inquiry may have cleared Peter Mandelson of deliberately lying over the cash-for-passports row, but the affair still has huge potential to damage the government.

The detailed report raises numerous question marks over exactly how the events at the centre of the affair unfolded.

And it does not address the question of the apparently close relationship between the Hinduja brothers - accused of corruption in India - and senior ministers.

But, probably most dangerously for Tony Blair, it also suggests the prime minister sacked his closest friend and advisor when there was evidence he had done nothing wrong.

The report includes a memo to Downing Street from Cabinet Secretary Sir Richard Wilson the day before Mr Mandelson was sacked and in which he states: "no one has produced a shred of evidence that anything improper took place."

Yet just hours later Mr Mandelson was hauled into Downing Street to face what many have called a kangaroo court and swiftly sacked.

Old ground

And it is Mr Blair's role in Mr Mandelson's forced resignation that is now set to dominate the continuing row.

Former minister Peter Mandelson
Mandelson: forced resignation
The prime minister probably hasn't helped matters by refusing to comment on exactly why the minister resigned, insisting he is not prepared to go over old ground.

And his spokesman would only state: "Peter left the government in January, the circumstances are well known to you. What happened then, happened. It was and is a tragedy for Peter that this happened.

"We have no intention of going over the arguments again. The government is moving on."

But the stonewalling raised allegations from opposition MPs that either Mr Blair had shown a huge lack of judgement in sacking his friend, or there is more to the case than has so far been revealed.

Told an untruth

The other minister who will be under the spotlight as a result of the report's findings is Home Secretary Jack Straw.

Mr Straw was clearly instrumental in the prime minister's decision to dump Mr Mandelson.

And, in the wake of the resignation, he said that Mr Mandelson had gone because he had told an "untruth".

That centres on claims that Mr Mandelson had personally telephoned Home Office minister Mike O'Brien about Mr Hinduja's passport application.

Mr O'Brien said he clearly remembers the call while Mr Mandelson initially said he did not make such a call, then later changed his story.

The prime minister's spokesman Alastair Campbell
Campbell needed to breif press
The report concludes that Mr Mandelson's belief that he had made no such call was "honestly held." In other words the call may indeed have taken place, but Mr Mandelson had forgotten it.

Mr Straw, however, claims to have reminded Mr Mandelson twice about the phone call just days before he insisted he had no recollection of it.

Finally, Tony Blair's official spokesman Alastair Campbell will also face criticism for his role in the sacking.

It is claimed that he was so worried about negative headlines and so eager to brief waiting journalists on the affair that he helped bounce the prime minister into the sacking.

What all this amounts to is that the report has left some of the key questions at the centre of the affair unanswered because they fell outside the terms of the inquiry.

And there are just too many loose ends for this to slip quietly into the background - no matter how hard the prime minister refuses to answer questions.

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See also:

09 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Passport inquiry clears Mandelson
09 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Hammond report at-a-glance
08 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Timeline: Passport row
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