Blair's 'gatekeeper' arrested over cash for peerages affair
THE cash-for-peerages drama moved beyond the door of 10 Downing Street and straight to the Prime Minister's personal "gatekeeper" yesterday after Ruth Turner, a key aide of Tony Blair, was arrested by police under suspicion of perverting the course of justice.
Ms Turner, head of government relations, became the first paid official to be arrested by Scotland Yard detectives in relation to allegations that peerages and honours were traded in exchange for financial support.
Last night she denied any allegations of wrongdoing and Mr Blair issued a statement saying he had "full confidence" in his key aide, who sits yards away from his "den".
But the fact that Ms Turner was questioned on suspicion of perverting the course of justice will trigger speculation in Westminster that the police may be turning their attention towards the possibility of an attempt to cover up the sale of honours.
Officers from Assistant Commissioner John Yates' special squad arrested the 36-year-old at her north London home at 6:30am. She was taken to a police station for questioning and released without charge pending further inquiries.
Ms Turner was arrested in connection with alleged offences under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925, as well as on suspicion of perverting the course of justice, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The dramatic turn means that the police inquiry will drag on weeks longer than expected. Scotland Yard was expected to hand a file to the Crown Prosecution Service by the end of the month, but last night confirmed the deadline would be extended to allow officers to finalise their dossier of evidence.
Of the 90 or so people questioned by police, Ms Turner becomes the fourth person to be arrested, after Lord Levy, Mr Blair's personal fundraiser, Sir Christopher Evans, a major Labour donor, and Des Smith, a headteacher.
Ms Turner was previously interviewed under caution in September last year, reportedly in relation to e-mails uncovered by detectives during a search of Downing Street computers and paper files.
Police questions may have revolved around e-mails which appeared to have been sent to and from Ms Turner's workstation in Downing Street, discussing which lenders might be placed on a list of nominees for peerages.
But in statement, Mr Blair said: "Ruth is a person of the highest integrity for whom I have great regard and I continue to have complete confidence in her."
However, her arrest under suspicion of perverting the course of justice threatened to plunge Mr Blair into a Watergate-style crisis.
Referring to the "killer questions" that brought down the US president Richard Nixon, Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP who prompted the inquiry, said: "Whether or not this turns out to be Tony Blair's Watergate hinges on two questions: What did the Prime Minister know and when did he know it?"
PART OF THE IN-CROWD
RUTH Turner's desk is just yards away from Tony Blair's "den", where the Prime Minister carries out his day-to-day work.
A member of Mr Blair's inner circle, Ms Turner has been director of government relations and the Prime Minister's "gatekeeper" since May 2005.
The 36-year-old reports to Mr Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, who co-ordinates operations across No 10.
Yesterday was the second time that Ms Turner has been questioned by police as part of the Scotland Yard investigation into the "cash-for-honours" allegations.
She previously faced questions under caution in September, when she is thought to have been asked about e-mails and documents relating to the inquiry.
The daughter of an academic, Ms Turner was born in Dublin and studied English and history at the University of Salford.
After university, she entered into the business sector and was a co-founder of the company that set up the Big Issue in the north of England.
Ms Turner stood as a Labour candidate for the North West in the European Parliament elections in 1999.
She became a member of the party's National Executive Committee in 2000.
She has now become the fourth person to be arrested as part of the cash-for-honours inquiry and the first on suspicion of perverting the course of justice.
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