Blunkett: new Labour's fallen icon

The Home Secretary has always occupied a special place in Tony Blair's government: he is the man who

The man in charge of the nation's security, the man who seeks ever more mastery of the state over the individual, is now portrayed within his ranks as a victim of the posh and the powerful. The case against David Blunkett has assumed class overtones. Blunkett's role in Tony Blair's government always was important. Now it is vital. For that reason the Prime Minister will try to cling on to his Home Secretary as he has to no other minister before. Blunkett is everything Blair is not. He has had a desperately difficult and troubled life. He has risen to the top by graft. He is impulsive. He is blunt. When he talks of the poor suffering much more than the rich from crime and antisocial behaviour he does so from experience. He has the class credibility his boss lacks.

As the accusations mount, as the war of documents is waged, concerns are growing in Westminster and Whitehall that Blunkett may not survive his battle with Kimberly Quinn. The fear is not that Blair will ditch him - for that to happen Sir Alan Budd's report would have to be unequivocal and excoriating, something these inquiries very rarely are - but that the Home Secretary himself will say he has had enough, that he can no longer concentrate on the job. He may take his cue from the tabloid newspapers he has so assiduously courted. The Daily Mail's decision to publish the Home Office letters to Leoncia Casalme, suggesting that the visa application for Quinn's nanny had been fast tracked, was doubly damaging. The newspaper that had taken Blunkett into its embrace was serving notice that it might be ditching him.

The past few days have, bizarrely, had a galvanising effect on Labour. A tribe that was in danger of losing its identity is finding it again. Unlike other political and personal "scandals" of the Blair years - Peter Mandelson, Stephen Byers and (in his own non-elected way) Alastair Campbell - private condemnation of Blunkett is hard to find among ministers and MPs. One cabinet member who does not share Blunkett's authoritarian law and order approach describes the "personal warmth among even those of us who don't agree with him". He talks of Labour MPs' "contempt" for "what is now a highly politicised, ruthless and repulsive campaign to cut David down". Another talks of "war, with the enemy front line in Mayfair" - a reference to the Quinns' wealthy home.

The allegations, no matter how personally damaging for Blunkett, may not have a negative effect in the opinion polls, which have in recent weeks given Labour a strong and lengthening lead over the Conservatives. The confidence of Labour strategists is supported by the Tories' dilemma. They will take whatever advantage the affair accrues, but are being careful not to be seen to be exploiting it.

Before the Quinn team published the charge sheet against her former lover in the Sunday Telegraph on 28 November, Labour opinion was more divided. Senior politicians, I am told, made several attempts to urge him, in the words of one, to "calm down". While his attempts at securing paternity rights were described variously as "understandable" or "admirable", some MPs close to Blunkett encouraged him to wait until the birth of Quinn's impending second child before wading into a lawsuit against her.

Several MPs noticed that on 23 November Blunkett left the Queen's Speech debate early, apparently for another meeting with his lawyers. Quinn's admission to hospital suffering from stress has alarmed several in government more than the set of allegations that Budd is now investigating. The hope among some around Blunkett is that he will now tread more carefully. In this respect the counter-attack by Quinn may have, for the moment, succeeded. It has also galvanised Labour MPs to rally around a man whose behaviour has been, to put it mildly, less than commendable.

Blair's decision to do a Hutton, to provide Budd with the narrowest of remits and a prompt to exonerate the accused, has passed virtually without comment on Labour benches. It was left to parts of the media and various members of the great and the good, including the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Alistair Graham, to point out that the Prime Minister refused to implement proposals for an independent body to look into allegations of ministerial impropriety. Michael Howard has now followed that line of attack.

If Budd exonerates Blunkett, or provides wording that allows him to escape censure, Blair will be accused of a whitewash. He will ignore the critics, as he has done before. He is determined to use his arbitrary powers to produce the result he needs, just as he sought to in the several inquiries into Iraq.

So what is it about Blunkett that makes his survival so important to Blair? Mandelson and Campbell were soul mates. They could see the PM every waking hour if they so wished. And yet they were deemed expendable once they had become political liabilities (in Mandelson's case twice), although both maintained their access to Blair irrespective of their ejection from formal office. Blunkett was never part of the inner circle. Even though the Home Office is responsible for a disproportionate number of bills to go through this truncated final session of parliament, the Home Secretary has not been integral to Alan Milburn's election strategy meetings. Yet Blair and his people, while not close to Blunkett, have always been somewhat awe-struck by him. Over the years I have been privy to off-the-record briefings by Blairites against just about every member of the cabinet, past and present. The anonymous denunciations of Gordon Brown and Robin Cook were legendary. Even when Jack Straw was publicly seen to be doing well at the Home Office during the first term, the word was out to do him down. Mo Mowlam and Clare Short saw their characters assassinated; others too. Not Blunkett - never.

One member of cabinet cites four reasons for Blunkett's special stature. Blair might not be personally close to him, but he is "genuinely fond of David". Second, Blunkett comes from "that part of the political spectrum that is under- represented in government" - for that, read working class. It is now no longer taboo to refer to his blindness as adding both to his achievements and his empathy with the disadvantaged. Third, he is regarded as the top "deliverer". Two pieces of legislation are now seen as iconic for this administration - the literacy and numeracy hours brought in when he was Education Secretary, and community policing.

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, he is hailed as the "best communicator". He talks the language of "ordinary people" and he "calls a spade a spade". The images on 28 November of a somewhat dishevelled Blunkett yelling at television reporters outside his Sheffield home to leave him in peace were the antithesis of the slick spin of old. There is now no harm in that. Blair's cabinet has evolved into a team of bruisers. But there are few to match Blunkett. Charles Clarke and John Reid give as good as they get in interviews. Milburn had a difficult upbringing. Only John Prescott combines traditional working-class stock with a disdain for the privileged inhabitants of the media.

Blunkett, lonely as he was, allowed himself to be spellbound by that very privilege and everyone has suffered as a result. That is the subliminal message of the miserable consequences of his relationship with Quinn. The married woman may have been won over by the man's political powers. But the single man, too, was struck by the woman's social glamour. The bodyguards, the "leave it to me, I can sort it", and the rail ticket were all part of this desire to impress.

While nobody would have wanted events to transpire in this way, the class message may do no harm to a Labour government desperate to re-engage the core vote. The politics of insecurity are crucial to Blair's strategy, as George Bush's victory confirmed. The myth of Bush, the "ordinary" man in touch with ordinary people's concerns, in contrast to the detached man of privilege, John Kerry, proved a compelling one in America's heartlands.

Thanks mainly to Iraq, Blair has lost many of the middle-class metropolitans and inhabitants of the shires who flocked to him in 1997 and who grudgingly gave him a second chance in 2001. Many of these same people bridle at Blunkett's immigration and asylum policies, and at his preference for state authority over civil rights - from the detentions in Belmarsh, to trial without jury, to identity cards to ever more anti-terrorism legislation.

Straw, when he did the job, enjoyed baiting people he called "Hampstead liberals". That was political positioning. Blunkett really means it. Blair's focus on law and order is driven by electoral concerns, that old tactic of triangulation to give the Conservatives little room for attack. Blunkett does it because he means it. The more broadsheet commentators and lawyers have attacked him, the more convinced he has become that he is on the right track.

Blunkett's departure would leave a gaping hole at the heart of government. Blair would demand of any successor the same determination to push through the law and order and anti- terrorism agenda. Reid or Clarke would be the most logical choice, but neither is ideal. The former is Scottish, a hindrance in the post-devolution world but not an insuperable one; the latter is as tough as they come but has been suspiciously liberal on some issues, such as ID cards. Milburn would have been a logical appointment if the vacancy had occurred next year, but he is fully engaged with the general election strategy. Several others are possible - a return for Straw perhaps, but demotion is not the best incentive to good performance. There is no obvious replacement. There is nobody like Blunkett to reach the parts of the nation that Blair cannot reach. That is why (as I write) he is still in his job. Anybody else in the same mess would have been gone by now.

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