Graft inquiry may lead to early Blair resignation

Pime Minister Tony Blair could resign early if charges are brought against a senior aide involved in Britain's most serious political corruption inquiry in more than half a century.

The nine-month inquiry is focused on the alleged award of state honours in exchange for party funding, and has already seen more than 90 people, including Mr Blair, questioned by the police.

On Friday, police staged a dawn arrest of Ms Ruth Turner, a senior aide widely known within the ruling Labour Party as Mr Blair's 'gatekeeper' because of her influence over access to the Prime Minister.

Yesterday it emerged that Mr Blair is considering an early resignation if charges are brought against Ms Turner, who is being questioned under suspicion of withholding key information.

Ministers said they were certain Mr Blair could no longer stay until his planned departure date of June or July if any of his inner circle were formally charged.

One senior minister told the Guardian newspaper: 'He knows he would need to do the right thing for the party.'

There has been mounting tension between the government and the police over the manner of Ms Turner's arrest. Many feel that the police acted in a manner designed to embarrass the government by arriving at Ms Turner's home at 6.30am with four officers determined to search her home.

Her arrest is understood to have followed the discovery of fresh information during a search of the computer system at 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's official London residence.

According to the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, detectives obtained high-level permission to 'hack' into the computer network. Police had previously expressed their frustration that all relevant papers and e-mail messages had not been handed over by the Prime Minister's office.

Ms Turner, who was interviewed by police twice last year, has denied allegations of perverting the course of justice, a crime which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

But her arrest is seen as evidence that the investigation is focusing increasingly on the heart of power in Downing Street.
The police inquiry was launched in March last year after complaints from several Members of Parliament that individuals who lent millions of pounds to the Labour Party were later nominated for peerages.

The 2005 nomination list included stockbroker Barry Townsley and British-Indian businessman, Sir Gulam Noon, both of whom had made large financial contributions to the Labour Party.

Historically, peerages were awarded to members of the landowning aristocracy and to royal favourites. During the 20th century they began to be awarded to a wide range of individuals on the recommendation of the leaders of the major political parties.

Senior officers are expected to meet officials from the Crown Prosecution Service, the government department responsible for organising criminal trials, this week to discuss the interview with Ms Turner and decide on the next stage of the inquiry.

More senior officials and political aides are likely to be questioned. If significant new evidence emerges, the Prime Minister could be questioned a second time, at which point pressure for an early resignation is likely to increase.

'He knows he would need to do the right thing for the party.'

 The Straits Times, January 22, 2007