I'm not distracted by probe, Blair insists

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair insisted today he would not be forced into quitting as Prime Minister by pressure from the continuing police inquiry into cash-for-honours allegations.

And he said he would not "beg" for public sympathy, saying that voters would have to come to their own judgments on his record over the past 10 years.

In a highly-charged interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Blair refused to discuss the details of the investigation, but cautioned voters that some reports of supposed police leads were "completely untrue".

And he promised to speak publicly about the cash-for-honours affair once investigations have come to an end, which he hopes will be in a few weeks' time.

Labour Party chairman Hazel Blears admitted last night that the 10-month investigation was damaging the Government's ability to communicate with voters, while justice minister Harriet Harman said trust had been "eroded".

But Mr Blair dismissed suggestions that he had been distracted from his work by the inquiry, which saw him questioned as a witness by police for a second time last Friday.

He repeated his pledge to leave 10 Downing Street before the end of this Parliament, but said he wanted to stay to see through initiatives he had begun, such as reforms of the health service.

"You will have to put up with me for a bit longer," he told interviewer John Humphrys.

Expecting him to hand over to Gordon Brown in order to ease the pressure on the Government and the Labour Party was "not a very democratic way to decide who the Prime Minister is", he said.

In a highly personal exchange, Humphrys asked the Prime Minister whether people still saw him as "a pretty straight kind of guy" - as he described himself in 1997, when he first came under pressure over Labour Party funding.

Mr Blair responded: "I'm not going to beg for my character in front of anyone.

"People can make up their own mind about me, according to what they think about me, but I know what type of person I am.

"I am not going to get into the situation where I am pleading for my integrity, not even in front of the people."

He urged voters to wait until the inquiry, headed by Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates, comes to an end before coming to conclusions about the allegations that peerages were offered to wealthy Labour supporters in return for loans to bankroll the 2005 general election campaign.

Asked how much damage the inquiry was doing to him and his Government, Mr Blair said: "I think it has got to run its course over the next few weeks.

"I hope it will be wound up and let's see where we are then, and in the meantime - despite what people may think - I get on with the job.

"I think the most sensible thing is actually to wait and see what the inquiry comes up with, and we won't have a great deal longer to wait."

Betraying deep frustration about the way the cash-for-honours affair has dominated the news agenda over the past months, Mr Blair stressed that he was focused on issues such as Iraq, Lords reform, terrorism and the Northern Ireland peace process.

"I totally understand why this obviously is very distracting and somewhat obsessive for the media - it's bound to be - but it isn't for me," he said.

Mr Blair was asked whether it would not be better for Labour and the country for him to "put an end to it all" by resigning now.

But he insisted: "I have said that I will stand down this Parliament, but I have also said I want to conclude certain things and finish certain things... for example, the health service reforms that we are engaged in at the moment."

It would not be "right" to step down now, particularly before the inquiry has run its course and reached its conclusions, he said.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said later it would be wrong to read anything into the fact that Mr Blair referred only to quitting before the end of this Parliament - expected in 2009 or 2010 - and did not mention his later promise that he would no longer be Labour leader by September this year.

Commenting on Mr Blair's remarks, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said: "This is a prime minister treading water while his Cabinet moves on. There is resignation in his voice.

"He should go sooner rather than later. Until he does, the British people themselves have no chance to move on."