Nothing to stop Mandelson returning to the Cabinet again, says party chairman

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There is "no bar" to Peter Mandelson re-entering the Cabinet, Charles Clarke, the chairman of the Labour Party, said yesterday.

But he added thatthere was no pressure for the Hartlepool MP to return to the Government, despite the decision to reopen the inquiry into his role in the Hinduja passport affair.

Speculation on a possible returnfor the former Northern Ireland secretary has increased since Downing Street confirmed that Sir Anthony Hammond QC would look at new evidence related to the row, which forced Mr Mandelson's second resignation from the Cabinet last year.

Documents unearthed by Mr Mandelson cast doubt on whether a crucial telephone call between him and the former immigration minister Mike O'Brien took place.

Mr O'Brien told the original inquiry he remembered having a conversation about a passport application by S P Hinduja. Mr Mandelson says he has no memory of the call. The original investigation cleared him of impropriety but left open the question of whether he had made the call.

Yesterday, Mr Clarke denied a third spell in the Cabinet for Mr Mandelson would be unpopular in the Labour Party. He told GMTV's Sunday: "I think Peter is a very talented politician. I think that at all times, whatever particular events took place on the Hindujas or whatever, it's a matter for the Prime Minister whether he wants an individual in the Cabinet." But he added: "I don't think anyone is saying 'Bring him back', on the contrary."

Downing Street refused to comment on speculation about Mr Mandelson. Asked when Sir Anthony would complete the latest stage of his inquiry, Tony Blair's spokesman said: "It might be some time yet."

Mr Mandelson first left the Government in December 1998. He quit as Trade and Industry Secretary after a newspaper published details of a secret loan from Geoffrey Robinson, a ministerial colleague, when both had been in Opposition.