‘It’s true we have had people who got themselves into difficulty and ministers been dismissed. We’ve had huge problems on this front,’ Prime Minister Blair admitted yesterday.
He was responding to a question on the BBC Politics show, from the fringes of the G8 summit in Leningrad.
Presenter Jon Sopel had asked ‘Is your government whiter than white?’ recalling Blair’s famous pledge in 1997 that this would be so, after he had won his first general election.
Blair added: ‘I’ve given away probably more patronage, in fact I have, than any prime minister before me.’
Blair refused to answer questions directly about Labour fundraiser Lord Levy.
He was asked: ‘What was your reaction when you heard your friend Lord Levy had been arrested?’
Blair replied: ‘I’m not going to comment on any of the specifics in relation to the police inquiry.’
Pressed to say whether he was ‘shocked’, Blair added: ‘Let’s not go into my reactions to it.’
He stressed however, ‘Nobody in the Labour Party to my knowledge has sold honours or sold peerages.’
He added: ‘In my view it is absurd to say that if someone supports a political party financially, helps it pay its bills, run its election campaign, that they should be debarred from being party supporters for those places reserved specifically for party supporters.’
The interviewer pointed out: ‘There did seem to be a very clear link between giving loans, loans that were not in the least transparent, and being nominated for a peerage.’
Blair responded: ‘I do not want to go into the details of a particular case because the police inquiry has to complete its work.’
Blair defended Levy’s work as a fundraiser and said he should continue his work as Middle East envoy.
This was despite Saturday’s warning from Labour MP John Austin that the ‘cash for peerages’ scandal compromised Levy’s authority.
Blair was answering questions after press reports that Levy’s friends have said Levy is preparing to let Blair take the rap over the affair.
They said Levy is not willing to be ‘the fall guy’ for Blair.
It has meanwhile emerged that the former head of the Downing Street fund-raising unit, Nick Bowles, has also been questioned by police.
Bowles, who was responsible for checking donations and loans to the Labour Party were legal, has written on a website blog that ‘the whole peerages thing is corrupt’ and that ‘Tony Blair is up to his neck’.
In his interview, Blair defended his deputy prime minister Prescott’s contacts with American billionaire Philip Anschutz who wants to create a ‘super casino’ at the Millennium Dome.
Blair asked: ‘Has anybody got any actual evidence that John has interfered in this process in an improper way?’
This came after remarks by Tim Leiweke, the chief executive of Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), to the Los Angeles Times that plans for a super-casino were raised with Prescott ‘in a couple of conversations’.
Meanwhile, Blair’s wife Cherie has been accused of helping Jonathan Metliss, director of the private health Nexus Group, to set up a meeting with Paul Corrigan, her husband’s senior health adviser.
All this comes as former Labour minister Lord Hattersley called for Blair to resign in a few weeks, at the Labour Party conference in September.
• Second news story
SYRIA ‘WILL RESPOND’ TO ANY ISRAELI STRIKE
SYRIA warned on Sunday it would respond directly and by all means necessary to any Israeli attack on its territory, in its first official reaction to Israel’s offensive on neighbouring Lebanon.
The warning coincided with a similar threat by Damascus’ key ally Iran, and came amid rising fears that the Middle East is being dragged deeper into the spiralling conflict sparked by the capture of Israeli soldiers by militants linked to Hamas and Hezbollah.
‘Any Israeli attack against Syria will provoke an unlimited, direct and firm response using all means necessary,’ Information Minister Mohsen Bilal told the official SANA news agency.
Iran also warned Israel of ‘unimaginable losses’ if it attacked Syria and vowed that it was standing by the Syrian people.
‘We hope the Zionist regime does not make the mistake of attacking Syria, because extending the front would definitely make the Zionist regime face unimaginable losses,’ foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said in Tehran.