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Blunkett affair singes Blair

London, Nov. 29: David Blunkett's love affair with an American woman has now escalated into a full blown crisis for Tony Blair, with the Tories insisting an independent judge ' and not a pliant ex-civil servant ' be appointed to investigate whether the home secretary abused his position.

At his monthly press conference at 10, Downing Street today, the Prime Minister's attempts to set the agenda for the next general election was knocked askew by insistent questioning about Blunkett.

Late last night, after a day of drama, Blunkett bowed to pressure and announced he had asked his permanent secretary, John Gieve, to have an investigation carried out under someone who would be 'independent of the home office and independent of the home secretary'.

The most serious charge against Blunkett is that when his former lover, Kimberly Fortier, 43, complained that her nanny, Leoncia Casalme, a Filipino, was having immigration problems, the 57-year-old home secretary, the ultimate authority on immigration matters, fast-tracked a solution. Fortier, who is married to the British managing director of Vogue, Stephen Quinn, 60, is expecting her second baby in February.

Fortier, who is herself the publisher of The Spectator, has a son, William, aged 26 months. Blunkett, who was divorced 14 years ago but is close to his three grown up sons, wants new DNA tests to resolve paternity in both cases.

According to one report, a private DNA test on a sample of William's hair, organised by one of Blunkett's sons, suggests the home secretary is the father. The Tories, who now resemble a dog that has unexpectedly discovered a juicy bone, want the terms of the inquiry widened to investigate whether Blunkett let slip state secrets, for example on security matters, during 'pillow talk'. However, the BBC reported that a former treasury adviser, Sir Alun Budd, Provost of Queen's College, Oxford, will head the inquiry ' an appointment unlikely to please the Tories

It has been alleged that when Fortier's parents were travelling, Blunkett tipped them off about a security scare at Newark airport. There have been hints that if Blunkett tries to ruin her marriage, Fortier will reveal intimate details which could destroy the home secretary's political career ' he apparently has hopes of becoming Prime Minister one day.

Although at his news conference today, Blair once again expressed confidence in Blunkett, whom he called a 'first class home secretary', the Prime Minister was pressed on the morality of the affair.

He said: 'The principle I apply is to do with the performance of a politician's public duty. Politicians are entitled to private lives the same as anyone else. I could give you a long list of the things he has done over the past few years which have been to the benefit of this country.'

Pressed again that his stance appeared 'hypocritical' after promising a 'white than white' government, he retorted: 'The question is, is something in someone's private life an interference with their public duty'

Blair entered a slight qualification: 'He will carry on doing his job as home secretary. If there is a situation in which there is a crossover and there has been something improper, that is another matter, but I don't think that has happened.' But now that the press has smelt blood, Blunkett is not going to get off lightly, it will dig up every intimate detail of Blunkett's three year relationship with Fortier.

The Tory shadow home secretary David Davis said today the review must cover all the allegations, not just the visa application. 'The allegations talk about misuse of powers, misuse of resources, misuse of information and it ought to cover all those areas.'

Davis said it would have been 'unwise' of Blunkett to check the visa application of his lover's nanny. 'I don't view that as fatal, I just view it as unwise.' Last night, Blunkett was forced to issue a statement, which said: 'Trust, plain-speaking and straight talking is something which matters so much to me as a politician and as a man that I have decided, of my own volition, to request an independent review of the allegations that I misused my position in the case of the renewal of a visa application by Leoncia Casalme.'

He added: 'I regret the time and resources needed to undertake this, but in the light of the flagrant attempt to link my public position with the deeply personal circumstances of my private life, I believe that on this specific occasion, it is right to lay this accusation to rest.'

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