Anthony Bevins and Colin Brown report on a bitter row provoked by a 'tasteless' remark made by Mr Banks about the Conservative leader.
Tony Banks has been in trouble before. But last night even he felt compelled to issue a public apology for an attack he delivered on William Hague at a Labour Party Tribune rally on the fringe of the conference.
Tony Blair was said to be so angry about the conduct of Mr Banks - and the media attention he had attracted with the knockabout speech he delivered - that he had been on the point of sacking him outright.
Leadership sources indicated last night that the Prime Minister was likely to drop two lacklustre ministers from the Cabinet, Gavin Strang, the transport minister, and David Clark from the Cabinet Office, in a reshuffle in November, opening the way for promotion for Peter Mandelson in spite of his setback at the conference this week.
Mr Banks offence was to joke at the meeting on Tuesday night about Tory MPs electing "a foetus as party leader". Encouraged by a roar of laughter, he then added: "I bet there's a lot of Tory MPs that wish they hadn't voted against abortion now." It was the quip about abortion on the same day that Mr Blair had put the family at the heart of the Government's policy agenda, that caused grave offence amongst ministerial colleagues.
Accepting his fault in a press statement yesterday, Mr Banks said: "This was a tasteless remark, uttered off the cuff, which I acknowledge caused offence and for which I fully apologise."
Mr Blair had initially given Mr Banks the job of sports minister with some leeway as a "licensed jester". Mr Banks is widely regarded as a parliamentary wit.
His official apology to Mr Hague came after he had been "ticked off" by Chris Smith, his Secretary of State, in an initial reaction. Then, however, early television news bulletins led on the story - creating a diversion from a successful day of debate at the Brighton conference in which the party leadership averted defeat on rail nationalisation and tuition fees for students.
The decision to give Mr Banks one last chance was taken after heated discussion, it was reported last night. One of the considerations was that if the media hue and cry continued, and Mr Blair was later forced to sack Mr Banks, he would be repeating the weakness of John Major with a series of his own ministers - something that was ridiculed by Mr Blair.
Mr Banks had also told the packed meeting on Tuesday that when Tony Blair offered him his ministerial job, the Prime Minister had asked him if he would accept. Mr Banks said he told the Prime Minister: "Is the Pope a Catholic? I thought that would stand me in very good stead with Cherie and the friends of the Brompton Oratory" - a reference to the fact Mr Blair's wife is Catholic and their son attends the grant-maintained London Oratory School.
But he saved his rudest remarks for Peter Mandelson, who 24 hours earlier had failed to gain a seat on the party's national executive committee. Mr Banks joked: "I've had a fairly rough time, as you know. If Peter Mandelson ever came out in daylight he would probably get the same treatment." He warned MPs who had not voted for Mr Mandelson to carry a clove of garlic for protection.
"Do you ever get that scary, scary feeling that there's more than one Peter Mandelson?" Mr Banks asked. "What are they really doing in Millbank Tower? They tell us it's a communications centre. Well, I reckon they're making Mandelsons up there and getting ready to store them in that millennium dome over in Greenwich. When the clock strikes midnight on 31 December 1999, millions of Mandelsons will emerge from the dome and civilisation as we know it will be at an end."
The Conservative Party chairman Lord Parkinson said Tories would be satisfied by Mr Banks' apology but there were protests last night from the anti- abortion lobby.
Conference reports, pages 8 and 9
MINISTER of the knockabout speech
On Margaret Thatcher
"When I think how Thatcher said nobody ever missed the GLC it makes me so angry. I mean poor half-mad old cow, I shouldn't say anything. But I want to be around to see us get our revenge."
"She behaves with all the sensitivity of a sex-starved boa constrictor."
On Paul Gascoigne
"When God gave Paul Gascoigne his football talent he took his brain out at the same time."
On the GLC
"I owe the council a great deal. I'm determined to repay them. And that's why, when Thatcher, that provincial bigot, turns up and says: 'They never did any good' over here [that is, the GLC again], I just want to fill her face in."
On New Labour
"If you're going to dump your fundamentals, dump your ideology and disown your history, you're going off into the desert without a map. Like Mark bloody Thatcher."
"If I had to choose between being the Sports Minister or a Chelsea supporter, I wouldn't be the Sports Minister."
"I'm afraid in the bottom-kissing world of politics in which we live, it's not what you say, it's who says it."Reuse content