Blair to meet Pope and fuel rumours of Catholic conversion

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair, his wife, Cherie, and their children will have an audience with Pope Benedict in the Vatican today, raising expectations that he will convert to the Roman Catholic faith when he stands down as Prime Minister.

Mr Blair is expected to use the audience to invite the Pope to make his first visit to Britain next year, and there is growing speculation that it could be made a state visit.

However, Mr Blair may have quit as Prime Minister before the Pope's visit. MPs now expect him to signal his departure date at the Labour conference in September following his decision - disclosed in The Independent - to step down at the same time as John Prescott, his deputy.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, yesterday emphasised his increasing grip on the premiership by meeting Angela Merkel, the German leader, as Mr Blair ended his Whitsun holiday in Italy by meeting Romano Prodi, the recently elected Italian Prime Minister.

Today's audience will be the first time that Mr Blair has met the present Pope, but he had an audience with the late Pope John Paul II in 2003, shortly before the Iraq War. It has been made clear privately that Pope Benedict XVI is attracted to the prospect of a state visit to Britain, but church leaders here havebeen told that the papal diary is full for next year.

Today's audience follows Cherie Blair's unexpected meeting with Pope Benedict in April, when she was on a speaking engagement in Rome. Cherie, a devout Catholic, and her husband have regularly attended Mass in London, but his conversion would be controversial if he was still a serving Prime Minister.

A number of cabinet ministers are Catholics, including Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is a member of Opus Dei, the Home Secretary, John Reid, and Des Browne, the Defence Secretary. However, Mr Blair would be the first British Prime Minister to convert to Catholicism. He has avoided any public comment about converting to avoid upsetting traditionalists, who still object to any move that could undermine the establishment of the Church of England.

The Prime Minister appoints bishops and archbishops, and it would be difficult for a Catholic to interfere in the Church of England while it remained the established faith in the UK.

Ann Widdecombe, the former Tory Home Office minister who has also converted to Catholicism, said: "If the rumour is true that Blair is considering converting, he will have to revise many of the stands he takes in Parliament to comply with Catholic teaching.

"He has never voted on the pro-life side for such things as [raising the abortion age limit to] 26 weeks. He voted against the exemption of Easter Day and Christmas Day for the Sunday trading laws, etcetera, etcetera."

Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, said: "An invitation to visit Britain from the Government to Pope Benedict would be greatly appreciated by Catholics in this country. As to whether Britain is ready for a Catholic Prime Minister ... [that] is another matter."

The last papal visit to Britain, by Pope John Paul in 1982, was judged a huge success. He drew a crowd of 80,000 at Wembley Stadium, toured in the Popemobile, and met the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury.