Yeo comes out fighting: No 10 is silent: Minister admits being foolish, launches counterattack on tabloids and answers vocal critics in constituency party

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The Independent Online
TIM YEO, the embattled Minister of State for the Environment, yesterday publicly defied his critics by declaring he was not going to be driven out by 'media attacks' over the disclosure that he had fathered a child in an extramarital affair.

Mr Yeo said he had been 'very foolish' but insisted he expected to be judged on his performance as a minister and that the Government's proclamation of 'family values' had not been 'jeopardised by anything I have done'.

Before travelling with his wife, Diane, to meet senior officers in his restive South Suffolk constituency association last night, Mr Yeo, 48, denied in a BBC radio interview that he did not appear to have the full support of John Major, or his immediate chief, John Gummer. 'I don't believe that is the case. I have been very much encouraged by the support I received from colleagues in the Government.

'I believe that they have fully accepted that this is a private matter which has no bearing on my ability to perform my functions as a member of the Government.'

Downing Street said that it had nothing to say, after Mr Yeo, while acknowledging he would have to go if he lost the confidence of Mr Major, added that he did not expect 'those circumstances will arise'.

Arriving at the South Suffolk Conservative Office in Hadleigh last night, Mr Yeo said: 'I am here firstly to listen to the views of my constituency officers. I am here secondly to express my deep regret at the embarrassment that I have caused by my recent actions. I am here also, I hope, to reach a conclusion that the Prime Minister decides who is in his government and not the tabloid newspapers.'

Twenty minutes after his arrival, the constituency chairwoman, Patricia Fitzpatrick, said that no decision would be made public until this morning, when a statement would be issued. Mr Yeo emerged from the meeting after

2 hours and 35 minutes looking tired but refusing to give details of what went on inside. He said: 'We had a very constructive meeting. The Conservative Association representatives made clear to me the views of the people they have talked to among our supporters in South Suffolk.'

Earlier, in his radio interview, Mr Yeo, who has admitted being the father of a five- month-old daughter as a result of his affair with a London solicitor and Conservative councillor, Julia Stent, 34, drew an explicit distinction between his case and recent government strictures on single mothers. 'The Government has not attacked single mothers as a general category. What the Government has done, rightly in my view, is express concern about the costs that arise to taxpayers of a number of single mothers whose financial support is derived entirely from the public purse. That is not the case in this situation at all.'

That argument did not go down well in his constituency. Colin Spalding, chairman of Haverhill branch, said: 'We don't feel there is such a distinction between the two.' Earlier Mr Spalding said that Mr Yeo should resign as a minister and step down as MP.

The distinction was also dismissed by Mr Yeo's few constituency supporters. John Sayers, councillor for Sudbury, said that since Mr Yeo 'had been a naughty boy' he should resign as minister but remain as MP. But he said the Conservative position on single mothers was a mixture of moral and financial concerns. Mr Sayers did not want 'to see a good man sacrificed' but to try to separate the two was difficult.

Speaking for the first time since the affair became public, Ms Stent told the Press Association last night: 'I consider my relationship with Mr Yeo to be a private matter and I have no intention at present of commenting at all.'

Responding to a press report suggesting that she might sell her story to a newspaper, she said: 'I was concerned someone speaking on my behalf and probably inadvertently has misled journalists or that they have chosen to misinterpret what they have been told.'

Mr Yeo's return to work yesterday coincided with the first signs of a belated public fightback by his ministerial and parliamentary supporters. Despite continuing concern among MPs about the political embarrassment of Mr Yeo's remaining in office, some senior Tory sources were expressing concern privately about the quasi-constitutional implications of a constituency association seeking to determine whether an MP should remain a minister.

It was acknowledged, however, that the association might be able to persuade Mr Yeo to stand down if it thought the alternative was deselection as Tory candidate in the next election - the only formal sanction open to the local party. Virginia Bottomley, Mr Yeo's boss when he was at the Department of Health, said on GMTV: 'The Kellogg's cornflake family of a mum and dad and two kids - it isn't everyone's family. For the kind of rows and difficulties which afflict every family to be splashed all over the newspapers did not help.'

Emma Nicholson, Conservative MP for Devon and West Torridge, said that people who did not keep marriage vows secure were not necessarily to be 'pushed into outer darkness'.

(Photograph omitted)