A NORTH-EAST priest who is a close friend of Tony Blair last night welcomed the former prime minister's conversion to Catholicism.

Mr Blair was welcomed into the Roman Catholic church on Friday night by the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor - leader of the Roman Catholics in England and Wales - bringing to an end years of speculation that he would convert on leaving office.

Father John Caden first said Mass for Tony and Cherie Blair when Mr Blair came to Sedgefield, County Durham, as MP in 1983.

Since then he has baptised all four of the Blairs' children at St John Fisher Church, in Sedgefield.

Father Caden said last night: "After 24 years, we can finally welcome the decision. I am absolutely delighted.

"When Tony first came to Sedgefield as a young MP, he told me his wife was a devout Catholic and that he would like to bring her to church.

"From then, he didn't just come the odd time, he came every week, up until he became Prime Minister."

Father Caden said: "He was an Anglican who married a Catholic woman and vowed to bring up their children as Catholics, which he has done, but now it is wonderful that he has stepped all the way over."

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor welcomed the decision, which culminated in a ceremony in the chapel of Archbishop's House, in Westminster.

He said: "My prayers are with him, his wife and family at this joyful moment in their journey of faith together."

Converting while in office could have caused the former premier problems with issues such as abortion, contraception, homosexuality and faith schools.

Mr Blair's former spokesman Alastair Campbell once famously told reporters: "We don't do God".

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams wished the former prime minister well. He said: "A great Catholic writer of the last century said that the only reason for moving from one Christian family to another was to deepen one's relationship with God.

"I pray that this will be the result of Tony Blair's decision in his personal life."

However, The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (Spuc) reacted with surprise to the news, citing in particular Mr Blair's views on abortion.

Tory MP Ann Widdecombe, who converted to Catholicism in 1993, said it was possible in her opinion to be a practising Catholic and Prime Minister.

She told Sky News: "I think the crucial thing to remember is at the point you are received (into the Catholic church) you have to say individually and out loud I believe everything the church teaches to be revealed truth.

"And that means, if you previously had any problems with church teaching, as Tony Blair obviously did over abortion, as he did again over Sunday trading, you would have to say you changed your mind."