Labour chiefs are braced for tomorrow's opening of their party conference to be overshadowed by damaging new claims about Baroness Scotland, the Attorney General, by her former housekeeper.
The peeress is fighting to save her political career after being fined £5,000 for breaking immigration rules when she hired Loloahi Tapui, a 27-year-old Tongan living in Britain illegally.
Ms Tapui has turned for advice to the publicity guru Max Clifford and is expected to give her side of the story in a Sunday newspaper interview to coincide with the first day of the Labour conference. Lady Scotland insists that she fully checked her new recruit's paperwork, including her passport, before employing her six months ago. After being caught, she likened the episode to not paying the congestion charge.
But the pressure on her to resign could become overwhelming if Ms Tapui's version of events differs from the Attorney General's. Opposition parties have already demanded her resignation, pointing out that she drafted the immigration legislation of which she fell foul. A ministerial aide in her department, Stephen Hesford, has quit his position in protest over her refusal to resign.
The Conservatives have questioned why the UK Border Agency investigation into the case was concluded so rapidly. Chris Grayling, the shadow Home Secretary, said its inquiry must be reopened if Ms Tapui contradicts Lady Scotland. Lady Scotland was fined after investigators discovered that she had failed to take photocopies of her employee's documents. She apologised for her "technical breach of the rules", paid the penalty and had hoped to ride out the storm.
Gordon Brown gave her his strong backing, but yesterday Downing Street was again forced to express his full confidence in his minister following internet reports that Ms Tapui would claim that Lady Scotland failed to study her passport.
Ms Tapui and her husband, Alexander Zivancevic, a Serbian-born solicitor, have been arrested by officers from the UK Border Agency. They were questioned over alleged immigration offences and released on bail until October.
Mr Clifford said the couple approached him because they were distressed by reports about the state of their marriage. "They have been together for years, they were living together for years before they married, and they go to the same church," he said. "The whole thing has been very upsetting for Lolo and for Alex. There have been some pretty dreadful things written about their relationship. So far no one has heard their version of events."
The ever-wily Mr Clifford claimed that the couple had yet to decide whether to go public: "They have made it very clear lots of things have been said that aren't true. We just have to wait and see what they decide." Ms Tapui stayed on in Britain after her student visa ran out five years ago and married Mr Zivancevic in May 2007. She is alleged to have used her marriage certificate as proof of her entitlement to be in the country.
The controversy over Lady Scotland proved an unwelcome distraction for Mr Brown as he flew to the United States for meetings of the United Nations and the G20 group of industrialised nations. Cabinet ministers have privately warned that her survival chances look bleak, but the Prime Minister has made it clear that he is determined not to lose her without a fight.
Mr Brown's spokeswoman insisted yesterday that he retained faith in his Attorney General. "The UK Border Agency did a thorough investigation into this issue and took the decision that they took," she said. "The Prime Minister's view is that he was satisfied with the report of the UK Border Agency."
High flyer: A glittering career
*Patricia Scotland was born in Dominica and came to Britain with her parents aged three.
*She and 11 brothers and sisters grew up in the east London suburb of Walthamstow. She was the only black child in her class.
*A careers adviser urged her to forget about law and apply instead for a job in a supermarket.
*She received her degree from London University in 1976 and was called to the Bar the following year.
*She was the youngest Queen's Counsel since William Pitt at the age of 35 and was the first black woman to take silk.
*Tony Blair made her a peer in 1997 and appointed her to his government two years later.
*She married fellow barrister, Richard Mawhinney, in 1985 and has two sons.Reuse content