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23 October 2006updated 27 Sep 2015 2:59am

How ministers became soap stars

Reflecting on the book that is causing a political storm, Stephen Byers praises its author and calls

By Stephen Byers

The media coverage of The Blunkett Tapes has concentrated on the high drama of feuds, splits and resignations. In doing so, it fails to reflect the fact that, with 850-plus pages, David Blunkett gives us a very accurate account of what it is like to be a cabinet minister in our modern world.

I worked closely with David through many of the years covered in the book, and shared with him the trials, tribulations and sense of achievement that can come from holding ministerial office. I vividly recall his fury at Tony Blair’s unilateral decision to keep Chris Woodhead in post as chief inspector of schools after little, if any, consultation. On the other hand, having a bill ready, within weeks of being elected, to abolish the Tory assisted-places scheme (which used taxpayers’ money to buy places in private schools) and then redirecting that money to cut class sizes was a source of great satisfaction.

Without his colleagues’ knowledge, David would spend time at the weekend recording his thoughts about the past week. Four themes run through the book. The first is personal to him: the steps he had to take to compensate for his blindness; the hours of work he had to put in, listening to tapes and transcribing into Braille. He is open about the isolation he experienced because of his blindness. The other themes are ones that all ministers would recognise: difficulties dealing with the civil service, media intrusion, and the lack of time for creative thought.

In his desire to drive through the changes needed to raise standards, David found the civil service slow and obstructive. His criticism of the Home Office was fierce. At one stage in the book he describes the department as “running on fresh air for a very long time”.

Cabinet ministers all have to accept a degree of media intrusion into their lives. That is a reflection of the world in which we live. But the level of surveillance and harassment suffered by David was exceptional. He gives many examples of how he, his family and his friends were hounded. The excuse given by one journalist when challenged – “Well, you’re a celebrity now” – reveals the extent to which politics has become soap opera. Given the state of public opinion, any attempt to introduce privacy laws would be deeply unpopular, the view of most people being that it would show that politicians actually did have something to hide. A better approach would be for the media to accept that they need to act more responsibly. As this is unlikely to happen, one answer could be to give the Press Complaints Commission real powers, and for the PCC to be prepared to use them.

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The theme in David’s book that will resonate with all ministers is the pressure on fresh thinking. For example, when we were together at the education department, we inherited the problem of schools that had been seriously underperforming for years, and showed no sign of being able to turn themselves around. Urgent action was needed, but we had no time to develop a comprehensive policy. At my suggestion, we fell back on a carrot-and-stick approach of identifying in public the schools concerned. This quickly became known as “naming and shaming”. David was never really happy with this, but we didn’t have the time to work through other options.

Fresh ideas are crucial, particularly now, for a Labour government which, after a decade in office, has to demonstrate that it is still in tune with the British people. The challenges facing our country are not the same as those we had to deal with in 1997. A debate about political priorities and the policies to reflect them is essential, not because there is a fundamental ideological division but because within new Labour there are different currents of thought. The time is right to stop hiding the fact and acknowledge it publicly.

We may broadly agree on the direction of political travel, but the mode of transport, the pace at which we proceed and how far we go have yet to be discussed. I know that former cabinet ministers, including myself, will be addressing these matters over coming weeks. There must be no no-go areas for policy debate. We will need to consider politically sensitive issues: the next stages of public service reform; reconciling individual rights with collective security; and ensuring we have a tax system that rewards work and penalises environmentally harmful activity.

But carrying this debate forward should not be the preserve of former ministers. It needs also to be opened out to include the party itself, and it is crucial that present members of the cabinet find the time to enter the debate.

I regard David Blunkett as a personal friend and political ally. I have my own views on the rights and wrongs of his first resignation and whether he came back to the cabinet too soon.

This book provides an opportunity for us to hear David’s story, and to judge for ourselves the part he played in his own downfall.

Stephen Byers is MP for North Tyneside “The Blunkett Tapes” is published by Bloomsbury

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