Former prime minister, Tony Blair, has converted to Catholicism, his spokesman confirmed today.

He was welcomed into the church in a service last last night by the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor.

Mr Blair’s relationship with the gay community was seriously damaged following his appointment of the devoutly Catholic Ruth Kelly to the post of Minister for Equality in 2006. Ms Kelly, a member of Opus Dei had never voted in favour of gay rights despite her role holding responsibility for LGBT issues.

When Mr Blair was tempted to side with Ms Kelly and Roman Catholic adoption agencies over an exemption to the sexual orientation regulations, Peter Hain and Alan Johnson threatened to quit the cabinet.

The conversion last night comes after years of speculation that Mr Blair, whose wife Cherie and four children are Catholic, would convert from Anglicanism after he left office.

One of his final acts as prime minister was to visit Pope Benedict in June – his third Vatican trip in four years.

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said this afternoon: “I am very glad to welcome Tony Blair into the Catholic Church.

“For a long time he has been a regular worshipper at Mass with his family and in recent months he has been following a programme of formation to prepare for his reception into full communion.”

Monsignor Mark O’Toole, the cardinal’s private secretary, led Mr Blair through his period of spiritual preparation before last night’s ceremony.

The cardinal added: “My prayers are with him, his wife and family at this joyful moment in their journey of faith together.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams today wished Mr Blair well: “Tony Blair has my prayers and good wishes as he takes this step in his Christian pilgrimage.

“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.”

Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, who also converted to Catholic Catholicism from the Church of England told Sky News: “Well 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.

“And I think people will want to know that he did go through that process, because otherwise it will seem as if the church did make an exception for somebody just because of who he is.”

She added: “It’s perfectly possible to be a practising Catholic and play a very major role including the most major role in British politics in this country.

“One could really say, come on Tony, you should have been setting the example. You should have been demonstrating how possible it is. But really we don’t know what the reasons for the delay were.”

Paul Woolley, director of Theos – a public theology think tank, said: “I think this is the right decision for Tony Blair and there’s a lot of integrity attached in that – doing what he’s wanted to do for a considerable period of time.

“It may well be his reticence in doing this may have been down to how it would have been interpreted.

“I wouldn’t criticise him for that, more the culture we live in that would have jumped on him if he had converted in office.”

He added: “I’m sure at some point we will see a Catholic prime minister. It’s really important that does happen in a liberal and tolerant society.

“People with real religious convictions should be able to serve in public office and not be denied that opportunity.”

Not everyone offered Mr Blair warm words. John Smeaton of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said: “During his premiership Tony Blair became one of the world’s most significant architects of of the culture of death, promoting abortion, experimentation on unborn embryos, including cloned embryos, and euthanasia by neglect.

“SPUC is writing to Tony Blair to ask him whether he has repented of the anti-life positions he has so openly advocated throughout his political career.”