Sun, Feb 04, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Blair refuses to resign over probe

'OUTSTANDING' For the second time in two months, the British prime minister faced questions from police over alleged 'cash-for-honor' practices within his party

AFP , LONDON

British Prime Minister Tony Blair refused on Friday to resign over a "cash-for-honors" police probe despite growing pressure and fears within his Labour Party about its political fallout.

Blair, who has pledged to stand down between July and September, told the BBC he intended to pursue his policy reform agenda until handing over to his successor in the party.

`Corrosive impact'

However, opposition leaders have called for him to quit now and top Labour figures are openly worrying about the 10-month investigation's "corrosive" impact now Blair has been questioned by police for a second time as a witness.

The inquiry launched in March 2005 is to establish if Labour and other parties illegally offered seats in parliament's unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords, in return for financial assistance.

Blair said he understood how the probe was "distracting and somewhat obsessive for the media" but added: "It isn't for me."

When pressed by the BBC about whether he should stand down to end the political damage, Blair replied: "I don't think that's the right way to do it.

"I think it would be particularly wrong to do it before the inquiry has even run its course and come to any conclusion. You'll have to put up with me for a little bit longer," the prime minister said.

David Cameron, leader of the main opposition Conservative Party, on Thursday repeated his claim that Blair's authority was draining away, adding the fact he was questioned a second time "only confirmed" he should go "and go soon."

Second interview

On Thursday it was confirmed that Blair, who last December became the first serving British prime minister to be questioned by police, had been interviewed again last Friday -- again as a witness rather than as a suspect.

The interview was kept secret for six days after police asked for a news blackout "for operational reasons."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the leader of the second opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, said: "He should go sooner rather than later. Until he does the British people themselves have no chance to move on."

Further damage

Hazel Blears, the Labour party chairman and tipped as a contender to become the party's next deputy leader, said the inquiry was damaging the government's ability to communicate with voters.

"Inevitably, when you have this kind of thing going on for months and months, it does have a corrosive effect," Blears told BBC television late on Thursday.

"It is damaging for politics because there is a corrosive cynicism around that I think is damaging for the country," she said.

The probe has only intensified in the last few weeks.

Lord Michael Levy, Blair's Middle East envoy and chief party fundraiser, was arrested on Tuesday for a second time in the investigation.

The Guardian newspaper said the police demanded Blair keep his questioning secret to see if they could expose Levy giving misleading or contradictory evidence.

Two weeks ago, another key individual close to Blair, Ruth Turner, director of government relations at Downing Street, was also arrested.

Levy was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice before being released on bail, while Turner was held on suspicion of breaching the Honours Act 1925 and perverting the course of justice.

Their arrests, as well as Blair's second round of questioning, have prompted speculation that the police investigation is snowballing towards a conclusion.

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