Cabinet rift and fresh visa claim hit Blunkett

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Indy Politics

The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, was looking increasingly beleaguered last night, as first Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, refused to accept his apology over remarks exposing rifts in Cabinet, and then new allegations emerged concerning the visa application for his lover's nanny.

Mr Straw is said by witnesses to have been "white with anger" over the way Mr Blunkett had talked openly about internal arguments within the Government over ID card legislation, which is to be a central plank of next year's Labour election manifesto.

Mr Blunkett's political future is already in the balance because of allegations arising from his ruptured love affair with the publisher Kimberly Quinn.

But Downing Street's view is that his remarks about Mr Straw and other ministers are potentially more serious than anything coming out about Mr Blunkett's private life because they break the rule that ministers do not air policy differences in public.

Tony Blair has warned his Home Secretary that he will have to heal the rift that his remarks have opened.

A Downing Street official said: "People know that these arguments go on, but you never hear a cabinet minister talking about them publicly. This is a bigger problem than anything to do with his private life just now."

Mr Blunkett and Mr Straw are expected to talk again over the weekend in the hope of ending the seething row. One aide said: "We don't reveal details of telephone conversations that are still going on."

Sir Alan Budd, the former Treasury adviser, is investigating an allegation that Mr Blunkett misused his position to fast-track a visa for his former lover's nanny. Downing Street believes the findings will not be damaging enough to force his resignation.

However, today's Sunday Times claims Mr Blunkett raised the issue of a visa for Leoncia Casalme, the nanny, at a meeting in May with civil servants on delays in dealing with applications. When they said the backlog was being cleared, Mr Blunkett allegedly challenged them by producing a letter from the Home Office saying she faced a 12-month wait. The paper says that an official took the letter away; immigration was contacted and was asked that the application be "sorted". Three days later, reportedly, it was.

Last night a Home Office spokesperson said they could not comment before the Budd inquiry had reported.

The Prime Minister is determined to hang on to his Home Secretary, who shares his socially conservative views on issues related to crime and security. Mr Blair believes the Home Secretary has been driven by a sense of paternal duty into going to court to obtain access to Mrs Quinn's child, whom he believes to be his son.

The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have fought hard to introduce ID cards, despite opposition from other members of the Cabinet. That opposition has previously only become public through leaks and rumours until Mr Blunkett put it "on the record" in a taped conversation withStephen Pollard, a journalist whose biography of Mr Blunkett is published this week.

The Home Secretary was particularly scathing about Mr Straw, whom he accused of taking up the issue of ID cards at a time when Mr Blair's position had been weakened by the Iraq war. "He's wanted to distance himself a little from Tony and address a domestic agenda item that would give him some kudos," he said.

Mr Blunkett also attacked the Trade Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, another opponent of the ID scheme, for her failure to "think strategically" and accused her and other objectors of not studying the proposal properly.

Legislation for ID cards will be debated in the Commons on Tuesday week. The Liberal Democrats will vote against it on the grounds that it will be ineffective and expensive, while the Tory leadership is "split down the middle". Michael Howard wants to support the scheme, rather than risk opposing a measure that could help combat crime and illegal immigration.