Senior cabinet ministers have told MPs privately that Cherie Blair is the cause of the cabinet split over demands to exempt Roman Catholic adoption agencies from equality laws on gay adoption.
The row intensified yesterday when the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, was accused by gay rights campaigners and some Labour MPs of trying to blackmail the Government.
The accusations flew after Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor wrote to cabinet ministers warning them that Catholic adoption agencies would have to close if they were not exempted from the new laws.
The leaders of the Church of England backed Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, warning the Government that religious people may feel that their conscience forbids them from undertaking public work under the new laws. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Rowan Williams and John Sentamu, wrote to Tony Blair saying: "In legislating to protect and promote the rights of particular groups, the Government is faced with the delicate but important challenge of not thereby creating the conditions within which others feel their rights to have been ignored or sacrificed."
The Equality Act, due to come into effect in England, Wales and Scotland in April, outlaws discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the basis of sexual orientation.
Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, a committed Catholic, was accused of seeking to gain an opt-out for the Church. But Ms Kelly and the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, have privately told MPs the pressure for an exemption has come from the Prime Minister.
"They said Tony is the one who has been asking for this exemption, not Ruth, who is pretty annoyed at the way she has been presented in the media," said a senior Labour MP. "Another cabinet minister told me it's all coming from Cherie."
Mrs Blair is also a committed Catholic and there has been speculation that Mr Blair will convert to Catholicism when he leaves office. He and his wife had a private audience with Pope John Paul II and Mr Blair met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican last June. The Prime Minister went to Catholic Mass in Miami over the New Year break.
The Prime Minister's office confirmed yesterday that Mr Blair had taken charge of the issue and was "looking for a way through". The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "This is an issue with sensitivities on all sides and the Prime Minister recognises that. This is not a straightforward black and white issue. This is an issue where there are sensitivities on all sides and we have to respect those but equally find a way through."
The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who is normally loyal to the Prime Minister, said it was "difficult to see" how an exemption could be justified.
Angela Eagle, who serves on a committee of senior Labour MPs who meet Mr Blair every week, said the position the Government was being placed in was close to "blackmail".
In his letter, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor said it would be an " unnecessary tragedy" if legislation forced the closure of the Catholic adoption services.
Terry Sanderson, head of the National Secular Society, said: "The Catholic Church must not be permitted to control our legislature through this kind of blackmail."Reuse content