OTTAWA - Efforts to snip Brian Mulroney out of the Tory family picture have sparked a backlash - a sign of the deep loyalties to the former prime minister that still run in the party.

Senior party and government officials told reporters Tuesday that Mulroney, whose past business associations are the subject of a federal inquiry, is no longer a Conservative party member.

But a number of cabinet ministers, MPs and senators were having none of it Wednesday.

"He is a member of the party, there's no doubt," Defence Minister Peter MacKay said as he entered a caucus meeting where Mulroney was reportedly discussed.

Revenue Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn, a Mulroney-era MP, praised his old boss.

"For a large part of his life he did so much to help our country and help Quebec, and for me he will be a Conservative forever, and I'm sure that's what he feels."

It was one of the few times since Stephen Harper became prime minister that members of his caucus refused to toe his office's public line.

Party sources, including Tory Senate leader Marjory LeBreton, said Mulroney asked two months ago to be removed from all party lists and communications, and ceased to be a member.

An internal e-mail circulated to political staff Tuesday night told them to direct all queries about the issue to Harper's office, although membership is a party issue.

Other officials have recently asked reporters to refer to Mulroney as a "Progressive Conservative" prime minister, rather than Conservative - all part of a move to distance Harper from Mulroney and the controversy that surrounds him.

Mulroney, who won back-to-back majority governments in 1984 and 1988, declared through his public relations firm that he would be a party member until death.

Spokesman Robin Sears said Wednesday that Mulroney hadn't received "the courtesy of a call" from the party to ask him about the membership issue.

"If Mr. Mulroney's plan was to relinquish is party membership, it would have been a big event and he would have issued it, not them," Sears said.

People close to Mulroney say Harper's team has twisted the details of a recent conversation Mulroney had with Irving Gerstein, chairman of the Conservative Fund of Canada.

Mulroney reportedly called Gerstein to congratulate him on his appointment to the Senate. During the call, sources say, he jokingly suggested that because of tensions with Harper he be removed from the "leader's circle," a group of top donors.

Mulroney donated $1,000 - the maximum amount allowable under law - to a Conservative candidate during last year's election.

Justice Jeffrey Oliphant is heading an inquiry into the nature of the transactions between Mulroney and German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber. Schreiber alleges that Mulroney agreed to lobby on behalf of a German defence firm while he was still in office.

Mulroney denies the claim, although he has admitted to receiving cash payments of at least $225,000 from Schreiber for international consulting work.

Conservative Senator David Angus, a longtime friend of Mulroney's, said the whole thing is an insult to the former prime minister.

"I think if people are trying to rewrite history for nefarious reasons, I think it's a darn disgrace. The man has just been named in a new book the greatest prime minister in the history of Canada after Sir John A," he said.

"Obviously he's going through a tough time. This is not a nice situation to be going through for whatever reasons, but to have this added on, (it's) adding insult to injury."

Not long ago, Harper was calling Mulroney a mentor and hailing his legacy as prime minister at public events. Harper and Mulroney had developed a relationship through the merger process for the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties.

Harper even hosted Mulroney and wife Mila at the prime ministerial retreat at Harrington Lake, Que. in 2006.

But when Schreiber alleged that his legal troubles were the subject of conversation between Mulroney and Harper at that country meeting, Harper acted quickly to cut off ties.

He announced there would be a probe into Mulroney's business dealings with Schreiber, and then instructed his cabinet to limit communication with the former prime minister.

Since then, relations between the two Tories have only become more strained.

Latest From ...