Pressure grows on Mates over Nadir: Downing Street orders minister to remain silent

SEVERAL Conservative backbenchers warned last night that unless Michael Mates gives a full account of why he took up Asil Nadir's case with Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, he will find himself under increasing pressure to resign.

But any further explanation is unlikely to be immediately forthcoming. Number 10 Downing Street has ordered him to remain silent, an indication of how worried the Prime Minister is about the impact of the affair.

The Northern Ireland security minister said on Monday that, after an approach by a constituent who claimed to be one of Mr Nadir's advisers, he had written to Sir Nicholas questioning the conduct of the case by the Serious Fraud Office. Mr Mates also admitted to giving the fugitive businessman a watch inscribed 'Don't let the buggers get you down'.

Friends of Mr Mates say that he accepts that the watch may have been an 'unministerial' gesture, but they emphasise that he was acting in response to 'unspeakably wrong acts by police and bailiffs (who) had taken not only (Mr Nadir's) watch but also all his defence papers'. They accuse the SFO of 'behaving abominably' and causing Mr Nadir to flee to northern Cyprus, but added that 'everything was going fine until Mr Nadir decided to spring to his defence'.

An influential backbencher warned of a difficult week ahead for Mr Mates. 'It's very difficult for MPs to be heard during a recess, but you watch out for next week. David Mellor went on until Parliament was recalled for an emergency debate about Black Wednesday, but within 24 hours he was gone.'

While Tory members argued that Mr Mates was loyally carrying out his duties as a constituency MP, they believed the gift of a watch just before the bankrupt businessman jumped bail was 'a gross error of judgement'.

One senior Conservative said: 'Why send a watch which is inscribed with such a personal message? It's not the sort of language you use to a stranger.' Another MP added ominously: 'I have no doubt that there will be those who will want to stir this up and will be already making noises behind the scenes, which will make it more difficult for Mr Mates to continue as a minister.'

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