Downing Street again insisted that the Secretary of State for National Heritage had the Prime Minister's full support, saying it did not regard the Daily Mail's account of Mr Mellor's links with Elliott Bernerd, a property developer, as important. Privately, however, some backbenchers were wondering how long Mr Mellor could hold on.
The Mail questioned his wisdom in accepting the use of a pounds 60,000 Mercedes and a pounds 300,000 mews flat in Mayfair owned by Mr Bernerd's company, Chelsfield plc. The Mercedes, driven by a Chelsfield chauffeur, was used by Mr Mellor to take his family to a photocall with his in-laws shortly after his relationship with the actress Antonia de Sancha became public. Ms de Sancha has claimed that the mews flat was used as a romantic rendezvous.
In a telephone call to Mr Mellor yesterday afternoon Sir Norman Fowler, the Conservative Party chairman, said there was no government pressure on Mr Mellor to resign. Sir Norman made clear he was seen as a strong minister, who should be allowed to get on with his job.
Sources in the Prime Minister's office argued that there had been no impropriety. They also said an earlier loan of the Mercedes during the general election campaign had been properly declared. Mr Bernerd, who is also chairman of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Mr Mellor used to be deputy chairman), declined to comment yesterday. But a spokesman said he was satisfied he had done nothing wrong in helping out Mr Mellor, whom he considers a friend.
'Mr Mellor can't drive and isn't allowed to use his ministerial car on personal business,' he said.
'So Elliott offered his. The flat is owned by his company and, as Mr Mellor can't drive, it was thought it would be useful for the minister to be close to London and all the events he has to attend.'
Mr Mellor reacted with anger and some bafflement that he was now being attacked on a new front and was said by friends to have told 10 Downing Street that whatever he had done in his private life, any suggestion that he had behaved corruptly was a lie and deeply offensive to him.
Sue Howat, his agent in Putney, south west London, said there was still strong support for him at constituency level.
Things are likely to worsen for Mr Mellor, however, before they improve. Next week he will be in the ironic position of being called to give evidence in support of the People - the newspaper that exposed his affair with Ms de Sancha - against Mona Bauwens, a personal friend, who is suing the newspaper over an article headlined 'Top Tory and the PLO Paymaster'.
Ms Bauwens, a film producer and daughter of Jaweed al-Ghussein, chairman of the Palestinian National Fund and an associate of Yasser Arafat, objected to the description of her father as a fundraiser for the PLO and the effect that would have on her reputation.Reuse content