Brown backs Blears despite 'unacceptable' tax claim

Gordon Brown continues to have full confidence in Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, despite twice publicly branding her behaviour "unacceptable", the Prime Minister's spokesman said today.

Mr Brown yesterday told a Downing Street press conference that it was "totally unacceptable" for the Salford MP to avoid capital gains tax by telling the taxman her London flat was her main residence after designating it her second home for expenses purposes.

This morning he repeated the comment in a TV interview, adding that it was "difficult" that a member of his Cabinet had been caught up in the scandal over parliamentary allowances.

The comments came just weeks after Ms Blears was forced to deny that a newspaper jibe at YouTube campaigning was intended as a criticism of the PM's much-mocked appearance on the video-sharing website.

They further fuelled Westminster speculation that she may be dumped from the Cabinet in a reshuffle expected next month. But in a regular daily briefing of Westminster reporters, Mr Brown's spokesman refused to discuss whether a reshuffle was in the offing.

Ms Blears last week apologised for her handling of the flat sale and handed over £13,000 to the taxman. Last night her constituency party ruled out deselecting her, with a statement saying: "Hazel Blears will be our Labour candidate at the next General Election. We have full confidence in her."

Challenged over Ms Blears' actions this morning, Mr Brown told GMTV: "Hazel didn't break any rule or law. But what she did was unacceptable. She came to me, we talked about it and she paid back the money."

He admitted that it was "difficult" that a member of his Cabinet had been caught up in the scandal.

Pressed on the issue of whether Ms Blears should be sacked, Mr Brown said: "I have already suspended - I am the only party leader to have done so - I have suspended two Members of Parliament from the Parliamentary Labour Party, I have told a minister to step down because of difficulties and irregularities that have got to be investigated in his affairs.

"I am the only party leader in these last few weeks to have actually suspended and asked people to step down.

"If it became necessary to do so for other people, I will not resile from doing so. We will take all the action that is necessary."

Mr Brown's spokesman was this morning asked whether the PM continued to have full confidence in Ms Blears and replied simply: "Yes."

Challenged over whether the PM's comments were undermining the Communities Secretary, the spokesman said: "He was saying that the whole situation is difficult and that is a situation that relates to many MPs as a result of the revelations we have seen in recent weeks.

"Hazel Blears was the first person to acknowledge that the issue wasn't about whether or not she had broken the law or the rules at the time.

"The Prime Minister stressed this morning and yesterday that Hazel Blears didn't break the law or the rules. She has taken action to to pay capital gains tax even though she is not required to do so by the law. She wanted to do that in order to avoid any doubt about the money and the Prime Minister respects that.

"In the Prime Minister's view she is doing a good job as Communities Secretary."