Blair in fresh row over 'secret' cash-for-honours police meeting

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The cloud hanging over Tony Blair from the "cash-for-honours" affair darkened when it emerged yesterday that the Prime Minister had been questioned by police for a second time.

Downing Street announced that the 45-minute session took place at No 10 a week ago today but denied misleading the media by concealing it from them.

In the past week, the Prime Minister's official spokesman has been asked on five occasions whether Mr Blair had been questioned again, and replied: "Nothing has changed."

No 10 insisted that the Metropolitan Police asked Mr Blair not to disclose the interview, and the police confirmed that such a request for a news blackout had been made for "operational reasons". Scotland Yard added that he was interviewed as a witness not a suspect to "clarify points emerging from the ongoing investigation" and had co-operated fully.

It is believed that detectives did not want Lord Levy, Labour's chief fund-raiser, to know that they had questioned Mr Blair again before they arrested him on Tuesday on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Lord Levy was asked about a note of a meeting at Downing Street at which he discussed the granting of honours with senior staff. The Independent understands that Lord Levy put forward several more people for peerages on top of the four businessmen who had lent money to Labour and were nominated by Mr Blair but blocked by the House of Lords' Appointments Commission.

The police inquiry appears to have moved on from the initial complaint that honours were sold to whether there was an attempt to cover up evidence relating to the claim. It is thought Mr Blair was asked whether any of his aides had his permission to offer honours or conceal evidence.

Yesterday's dramatic announcement increased the pressure on Mr Blair to quit "sooner rather than later" amid concern that the cash-for-honours affair has made it difficult for him to focus on other issues in his final months in No 10. The Prime Minister remains determined to stay on until this summer, so a decision on whether to bring prosecutions may not be taken until after he quits.

Lord Kinnock of Bedwelty, the former Labour leader, admitted that Mr Blair's legacy in the short term might be tarnished by the controversy. He told BBC News 24's Straight Talk programme that he felt "grief" for Mr Blair, who "deserves better than the circumstances in which inevitably he will depart".

He added: "It's done damage to politics, and the political-democratic process. It's nourished everybody who had reservations and doubts... The damage to reputation, to trust - the intangible but critically essential element in any democratic process - the damage to that will take years and a great deal of action to try and repair."

Lynne Jones, a left-wing Labour MP, said of Mr Blair: "He should have gone some time ago and I think the longer this goes on the worse it is for everyone, including Tony Blair."

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, said the second interview "only confirmed" that Mr Blair should go "and go soon". He added: "The fact is we have got long-term challenges and we need a long-term prime minister not a short-term prime minister to deal with those challenges."

Ed Davey, the chief of staff to the Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, said: "It is clear that this inquiry is going to haunt Tony Blair throughout his last months in office and beyond.

"What is important at this point is that Labour MPs stop sniping at the police from the sidelines and allow them to continue to do their job professionally."

Angus MacNeil, the Scottish National Party MP whose complaint to police sparked the investigation in March last year, said Mr Blair's second interview marked "another escalation in the police inquiry" and indicated that the Prime Minister was "in very deep trouble".

But Jack Straw, the Leader of the Commons, denied Mr Blair was being distracted by the police inquiry, saying he was "getting on with his job" and was "energised and focused".

In December, Mr Blair became the first serving prime minister to be interviewed by police during a criminal investigation. Lord Levy has denied any wrongdoing and Downing Street has insisted that it has co-operated fully with the inquiry.

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