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6 December 2004

How he threatened me with a libel writ

By Francis Beckett

I know that metropolitan opinion has on the whole swung against Kimberly Quinn and that, for all sorts of reasons, David Blunkett is popular with both his fellow MPs and the public at large. But I am afraid that the allegations of how he has behaved towards Quinn and her husband since their affair ended (“if I can’t have you, nobody will”, he is supposed to have said) strike a chord. I know that oppressive, almost bullying character. Blunkett has one of the most feared tempers in Whitehall, rivalling even the Chancellor for explosiveness.

In the 1980s, he was the leader of Sheffield City Council. He and the then Greater London Council leader, Ken Livingstone, were at the head of a group of left-wing councils determined to launch the frontal assault on Thatcherism that they felt Labour’s leaders were too timid to mount. I was then working as a sort of public relations consultant to the left, advising such organisations as trade unions on their image, and was delighted to secure what turned out to be a short-lived contract with the Blunkett-Livingstone group.

I remember kicking my heels in corridors for what seemed like hours until the great man was ready to see me, then receiving a curt instruction as he marched on to meet more important folk. But one day, I thought I saw the chance for a proper conversation. At a reception, I saw him alone, and went across. I told him – truthfully – that he had performed exceptionally well in the syndicated broadcast interview I had arranged for him. He said, in a voice dripping with angry sarcasm: “Yes, yes, Francis, we will use you again.”

I retired hurt and embarrassed. Years later I read in his autobiography that, being blind, he had no way other than rudeness of getting rid of people who bored him at receptions.

I gave up that work soon afterwards – I was no more naturally suited for public relations than he was for left-wing politics – and had little to do with him until, years later, he was Education Secretary. Other journalists told me that my pieces, mostly in the New Statesman, were making him angry. Some politicians try to talk their press critics round; others try to frighten them. Blunkett comes into the second category. He rebuffed all my requests for an interview. “He feels,” his aide Conor Ryan told me sharply, “that he does not need his views mediated through Francis Beckett, thank you very much.”

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Then one day Blunkett wrote to me. He said that, while he was used to my “tendentious” articles, I had gone too far this time, that he intended to consult lawyers, and that I was to provide at once my justification for what I had written. It’s normal to threaten the publication with a libel suit, not the freelance journalist who wrote the piece. In my reply, I merely repeated that I would be glad to interview him and report his answers to my criticisms.

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He never replied. But soon afterwards, I wrote that the real Education Secretary was not David Blunkett, but Andrew Adonis of the Downing Street Policy Unity. Adonis, I heard afterwards, was rather pleased. Blunkett was not, and Ryan spent most of the next day demanding a retraction of the statement that a particular decision – to retain the services of the Ofsted chief Chris Woodhead – was made by Tony Blair, and that Blunkett heard of it only after it was announced. The demands finally ceased when the New Statesman told Ryan that Roy Hattersley, my source, would confirm to anyone who cared to know that he had the story from Blunkett himself.