Could the PM be taken to court?

Anything you say, prime minister, might be used in evidence against you. Might Mr Blair be dragged before the courts over the loans-for-honours allegations? Political editor Chris Fisher considers the possibilities.

Anything you say, prime minister, might be used in evidence against you. Might Mr Blair be dragged before the courts over the loans-for-honours allegations? Political editor Chris Fisher considers the possibilities.

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Several members of the 2005 cabinet are helping the police with their ongoing inquiries into the 'loans for honours' allegations, which are expected soon to result in a knock on the prime minister's door.

There has been speculation that Tony Blair might not merely be interviewed under caution but actually charged with one or more offences.

But if the latter is to happen, he - and, more important, the nation - should at least be spared it until after he has quit No 10.

It has been reported that the police will not now be able to conclude their inquiry before Christmas, and that we shall be into 2007 before they hand a file to the Crown Prosecution Service.

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Quite a few months are expected to pass before the CPS makes a final decision on charges. And Mr Blair is unlikely to hang on beyond early May before announcing his resignation as Labour leader, because his party will want his successor to be in place before Parliament's summer recess.

Why the delay in the conducting of the inquiry?

The police have been kept waiting, it is said, in their wish to see some key documents and emails. And there is bound to be suspicion that this somehow fits in with the prime minister's Downing Street exit strategy.

The police have steadily been getting closer, however, to asking him what he knows.

Much, if not all, of the membership of his pre-2005 election cabinet has been sent letters asking what information it has about loans to the Labour Party.

Does that include Norwich MP and former home secretary Charles Clarke? We can't say, because he won't.

But former health secretary Alan Milburn - who ran part of Labour's last election campaign - has stated that he has been questioned.

It is rumoured, furthermore, that health secretary Patricia Hewitt is to be interviewed, and that chancellor Gordon Brown, deputy prime minister John Prescott, ex-party chairman Ian McCartney, and Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's former top spinner, could find themselves in the same position.

How serious will this get for Mr Blair? Might he be dragged before a court?

At the start of the Metropolitan Police investigation many people, including me, would have given a straight 'No' to that question. My gut feeling is still that the prime minister will escape such indignity, and this is not diminished by the role of attorney general Lord Goldsmith, who must consent to any prosecution.

But I'm no longer sure.

The inquiries are based on two pieces of legislation, the first of which, the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act, dates back to 1925 and the selling of honours for which David Lloyd George became notorious. It made it illegal to take money as an “inducement or reward” for procuring an honour for someone.

It might seem more than a little applicable to a situation under the present government in which four businessmen who lent the Labour Party £4.5m were nominated for peerages.

But there are various ways in which such a fascinating juxtaposition can be secured, and not all of them will invite action in the courts. In those that might, moreover, one would expect it to be very difficult if not impossible to find hard evidence.

It is hard to believe, given the magnitude of the implications, that any definite link between Labour funding and nominations for honours could have been created without the blessing of the prime minister.

But in such circumstances, wouldn't every precaution have been used to provide him with deniability? If it happened, furthermore, would he have done anything that quite a few of his predecessors since Lloyd George had not also done?

The second piece of legislation is the Elections and Referendum Act of 2000 which, among other things, requires donations of more than £5,000 to a political party to be declared.

Mr Blair appears to be on dodgier ground with this. It is his own legislation, so there can be no precedent from a previous prime minister for breaking it. And it is very difficult to see what the purpose of his party's convoluted loan arrangements was if it was not to get round this act.

Unlike donations, commercial loans do not have to be declared. But were Labour's loans truly commercial ones?

Mr Blair made much political capital out of 'Tory sleaze' in the 1990s. The issue helped him substantially on his path to power. And having won it, he vowed to clean up British politics.

Several moves have been made towards that objective, and they include the 2000 act. But it should hardly need saying that a political leader who legislated to such effect, and then conspired to find a way round it, would invite accusations of gross humbug, if not court proceedings.

Some people have wanted to have Mr Blair prosecuted over Iraq. Would there be much satisfaction for them if he were charged instead over party funding? By comparison, it is such a minor issue.

Who cares about the parties' funding problems, apart from the parties themselves? Who, outside them, isn't intolerant of their refusal to accept the best solution - that of wasting less money on campaigns that are full of stuff and nonsense?

To be prosecuted over such a matter would be a very great fall from high office.