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Tories taunt Blair with prospect of prison

George Jones and Brendan Carlin / London Telegraph | October 26 2006

David Cameron taunted Tony Blair yesterday with the prospect that he could face prison as a result of the police inquiries into the 'cash for honours' scandal.

During a rowdy Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons, Mr Blair came under pressure from Opposition MPs over the embarrassing prospect that he might become the first serving Prime Minister to be questioned by police about party funding.

The Conservative leader called on Mr Blair to answer questions about a shortage of prison places, "Prime Minister – back to prison. Actually, that has got a ring about it," Mr Cameron said to loud laughter from Tory MPs.

While Mr Blair did not make any reference to his own situation, Mike Weir, the Scottish Nationalist MP for Angus, kept up the pressure. "When he is interviewed by the Metropolitan Police, what innocent explanation will he offer for the fact that 80p in every £1 donated to the Labour Party came from people who were subsequently honoured?" the MP said.

Mr Blair side-stepped the question, saying he had "absolutely no intention" of debating those issues with Mr Weir. Instead, he accused the MP of not daring to ask a question about Scotland in advance of elections to the Scottish Parliament next year.

During the clash with Mr Blair, an SNP backbencher held out his wrists as if about to be handcuffed.

Mr Blair has been accused of selling peerages after four businessmen who gave Labour £4.5 million in unpublicised loans were subsequently nominated for peerages. Labour went on to reveal it had been secretly loaned nearly £14 million before the last election. The Conservatives borrowed £16 million from 13 wealthy backers. The Liberal Democrats have said they owe £850,000 to three backers.

The Tory leader's decision to taunt Mr Blair with the possibility of prison follows growing confidence in the Conservative hierarchy that they are in the clear. The police investigation now focuses on the peerages offered to businessmen who loaned Labour millions of pounds in secret to pay for the 2005 general election campaign.

Although Michael Howard, the former Conservative leader, was interviewed by police on Monday, Tory sources said they believed his role was negligible. He had been questioned as a possible witness and was not under suspicion of having committed any offence.

Downing Street said yesterday that the Met had not yet asked to interview Mr Blair, though he is expected to be questioned soon as the inquiry nears conclusion.

Mr Blair is keen to avoid the humiliation of being forced to attend a police station if he is questioned.

Police are expected to seek an interview with Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair's chief of staff, and one of the closest and longest-serving members of the Prime Minister's inner circle. Detectives are looking at a series of e-mails from Mr Blair's staff about the loans.

Downing Street yesterday failed to issue a categoric denial of reports that Mr Powell had already been interviewed as part of the six-month long investigation.

Labour is anxious that Mr Blair's aides should not be arrested or cautioned – as has already happened to a number of people questioned by police, including Lord Levy, Mr Blair's chief fund raiser.

Mr Howard spoke to detectives at his London home on Monday without being arrested or cautioned. The Tories believe the request to interview him was designed to show that the police inquiries were not politically biased and to clear the decks to question the Prime Minister himself.

Police are also looking into possible breaches of the 1925 Act banning the sale of honours and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which set new rules on disclosure of party fund-raising.


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