We punish the man, but protect a corrupt system<br /><br />

Who is guiltier, a minister who fast-tracked a visa or a Prime Minister who lied about the need to g

The year 2004 ended as it began, with an inquiry into the misconduct of government. David Blunkett has been found wanting, by Sir Alan Budd, of fast-tracking a visa for the nanny of the woman who so infatuated him. A man who was to personify Labour's pitch for a third term in office is left nursing a public and private life in ruins. There is an injustice in all this, but not the injustice that the former home secretary's friends would claim.

Three scandals and three reports have turned political priorities on their heads. The first, courtesy of Lord Hutton in January, was in itself a scandal. His criticisms of the BBC's reporting and management styles in the case of Andrew Gilligan and the death of Dr David Kelly had a certain merit. But their validity was destroyed by the absence of censure of the Prime Minister and his entourage for turning their notorious document on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction into a clarion call for war. The more time passes, the more even the most myopic advocates of military action have to admit that Gilligan's story was mainly right and a little wrong - not good enough, you might say, but certainly of a higher standard of accuracy than Alastair Campbell could produce for his dossier.

Much to his chagrin, Tony Blair came to see that the verdict was not as helpful as it might have been. The establishment did its job a little too well, a little too obviously. This led to the second inquiry, the more substantive one into the elusive WMDs by Lord Butler. His report in July contained potentially devastating conclusions and could have destroyed the PM. We know that because Blair has subsequently admitted it could have been the end of him. But Butler, the quintessential mandarin, made it clear he did not see that as his job. Holding the executive to account is, after all, the job of parliament.

Our legislature has for the most part been a shallow, meek institution, dominated by people either in government or who would like to be in government. Butler did say that Blair was running the country together with a small clique, sidelining the civil service. He did wonder why the Joint Intelligence Committee had not sought to report again on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein in the three months immediately prior to war - because the evidence suggested that any threat that might have existed was going away.

But no matter: MPs flunked their two opportunities to debate the report, and that was that. Not a single minister has had to carry the can for the most lamentable set of intelligence, political, military and diplomatic failures that led to the war and the chaos that has ensued. Instead, Blair led the jeering of the hapless Michael Howard and got away with it once again.

Contrast that to the fate of the man we now call the former home secretary. Every time I look at the charge sheet I ask my-self: is that it? On the specific case of the nanny, Budd found a "chain of events" linking Blunkett to the speeding up of the immigration application for Kimberly Quinn's nanny. He could not tell whether there had been any specific instructions from the home secretary because, rather conveniently, certain papers could no longer be found.

As soon as he delivered his verdict, Budd was accused of joining a long and illustrious list of whitewashers, a charge that it is hard to sustain, given that Blunkett's first reaction on being told of his findings on 15 December was to resign. As ever, Blair had commissioned an inquiry but required the inquirer to work with one hand tied behind his back. Budd was told he could not look into the several other allegations facing Blunkett, such as the use of drivers and bodyguards for non-official duties with his lover, disclosing security information about airports and despatching his senior civil servants for secret negotiations with Kimberly Quinn.

One person's misdemeanour is another person's crime. Blunkett's actions might well have deserved censure, but compare the gravity of the case against Blunkett with the taking of a country to war in Iraq on the basis of a false prospectus. Over a period of many months, Blair disregarded the standard procedures of diplomacy, intelligence, politics and international law in order to pursue a mission based in hubris and naivety.

Just as the evidence on WMDs was found wanting, so we have shown in the NS the extent to which Blair leaned on his Attorney General to produce legal advice that ran against his original instincts.

And yet the war, to many in the political classes, has become yesterday's news. Journalists and MPs have a short attention span. They like to "move on". A story is a story, no matter how important or trivial, and stories come and go. Britain's political culture, it seems, has lost a sense of proportion. Perhaps it never had one. Remember the fevered excitement a couple of Christmases ago over Cherie Blair's mystic friend and her dodgy partner? Bizarre, yes, but a case of national importance? Under this government ministers have quit variously over mortgages, allegations of getting passports for Indian tycoons, over what they said to parliament about putting Railtrack into administration and over what they knew of visa scams for Romanians and Bulgarians.

None of these allegations is insignifi-cant. Several of the miscreants perhaps deserved to go. We pride ourselves in the rigour of our public life. We wear it as a badge of pride that we do not tolerate corruption that would not so much as raise an eyebrow in Italy or France. This may be true. It may be virtuous, but we deceive ourselves. We act with surgical precision to remove individual wrongdoers, but we leave intact a system that is rotting.

Part of the problem is generic; part can be attributed to Blair's particular disdain for political institutions. On the real things that matter, big policy decisions, this government has been impervious to challenge. So much is done in our name with either little or no scrutiny in our elective dictatorship. We now rely on the courts and the House of Lords to try to ensure that justice and propriety are preserved. It has not just been the war. We are beginning to emulate the Americans also in our approach to the "war on terror" - access to information and justice can legitimately be subjugated to the more pressing need for security.

The way ministers dismissed the ruling by the House of Lords condemning the detention without trial of suspects at Belmarsh was almost as shocking as the policy itself.

The sorry and sordid affair of David Blunkett and Kimberly Quinn was a godsend for the gossips and a tragedy for the protagonists. Yet there is a greater tragedy, and that is the demise of trust in and respect for our elected politicians. Whatever happened to the "new politics" that Labour proclaimed in 1997? It was probably foolish to expect politicians to behave better of their own accord, but more effective checks and balances could have been put in place. It would have been as much in Blair's long-term interest as it would have been healthy for our body politic to give jurisdiction over all inquiries to the impartial Committee for Standards in Public Life.

Blair, ever the operator, has shown time and again that he is prepared to sacrifice even his most resilient servants to buy his government more time. He talks about rebuilding trust, but the single factor that most undermines trust is closer to home. It resides in the character of the Prime Minister himself.