Labour warns rival ministers over media briefings

 

The British Cabinet "enforcer", Dr Jack Cunningham, has issued a stern warning to rival ministers and their offices to end unauthorised briefings to the media following the resignation of the former Trade and Industry Secretary, Mr Peter Mandelson, as further details emerged about his acceptance of free flights from an American businesswoman.

As the Prime Minister, Mr Blair, enjoyed his New Year break with his family in the Seychelles, Dr Cunningham admitted yesterday that the government had been damaged by unauthorised briefings to journalists. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Collectively, unauthorised briefings have caused trouble for the government, are causing trouble and ought to stop."

Dr Cunningham's comments were seen as a sign of irritation over reports suggesting that the Chancellor, Mr Gordon Brown's, press secretary, Mr Charlie Whelan, was responsible for the revelations about Mr Mandelson's home loan.

The "internecine war" between Mr Brown's office and Mr Mandelson following the former minister's declaration of support for Mr Blair in the Labour leadership contest has been a matter of speculation for some time and is seen as a possible motive behind the home loan leak.

However, Downing Street has refused to comment on reports that Mr Blair had demanded that Mr Whelan should be sacked.

The shadow Trade and Industry secretary, Mr John Redwood, has called on Mr Blair to end his holiday and return to Britain to put an end to the "civil war" erupting inside his government.

Seizing upon every twist and turn of the controversy surrounding Mr Mandelson's shock resignation last week over his acceptance of a £373,000 loan from the former paymaster general, Mr Geoffrey Robinson, who also resigned, the Tories cranked up the pressure on the government by insisting that it should reveal if other MPs had received loans from Mr Robinson while in opposition.

Mr Redwood challenged the government to reveal whether Mr Robinson had bankrolled Labour while they were in opposition saying its promise of a "whiter-than-white administration . . . looks a very murky shade of grey this morning. We do fear that a number of ministers have not made full declarations in the Register of Members' Interests, which is the very minimum they should be doing to show that they take their own words seriously. It is a disgrace that they are not far more open." The emergence of the American businesswoman Mrs Linda Wachner - she owns Warnaco, a company which markets designer clothes and is worth an estimated £50 million - is also likely to fuel criticism of Mr Mandelson's conduct. In reports yesterday, Mrs Wachner confirmed that Mr Mandelson had accepted five free flights in her private jet while she travelled between destinations including Britain, Ireland, France and the Caribbean.

The free flights, which were not declared as gifts in the Register of Members' Interests because, according to Mr Mandelson's office, they were not related to his role as an MP or minister, have focused more unwelcome attention on the former cabinet minister as the Tories repeated their demands for a full Commons statement on the loan scandal.

And adding to the government's troubles, Mr Mandelson's office confirmed that he had dined with the Prime Minister, Mr Blair, at Chequers last Wednesday, just hours after he had resigned.

Far from being cold-shouldered by Mr Blair, Mr Mandelson has been asked to remain as British chairman of a new Anglo-German working group designed to improve links between the two countries.