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Tories suspect Blunkett case cover-up

Michael White, political editor
Friday December 17, 2004
The Guardian

David Blunkett went home to Sheffield as a backbencher last night as the cabinet met without him and Labour MPs recovered enough from the shock of his sudden resignation to predict that he could soon be back.

But any prospect that the fallen home secretary could return to office after the coming general election would be jeopardised if Tory claims of an attempted cover-up are vindicated by Sir Alan Budd's report into the disputed visa. It is expected early next week.

As Labour put on a "business as usual" display, the shadow home secretary, David Davis, revealed that he has written to Sir Alan.

He will ask whether officials close to Mr Blunkett had suffered "collective amnnesia" about the fast-tracking of a UK residence visa for Leoncia Casalme, the Filipina nanny of his then-lover Kimberly Quinn.

"Is Sir Alan convinced he got unstinting cooperation, that he got all the information availible and that nothing was deleted from the files? Was there a cover-up at the beginning? " Mr Davis asked.

Mr Blunkett, whom friends say is bearing up stoically to his loss of office, stepped down after being told by Sir Alan that a fax-and-email trail showed that, with or without the intervention he has always denied, special steps were taken to process the visa.

Mr Davis's suspicions have been aroused by media reports that several officials, including the permanent secretary, John Gieve, were present at a meeting where an angry Mr Blunkett had showed them the immigration department's letter warning the nanny of a 12- month delay.

Mr Blunkett's supporters say that, in a busy life, he could easily have forgotten the exchange which took place 20 months ago.

Mr Davis doubts if everyone concerned could have forgotten and has been told the information that brought the minister down emerged only in the second round of inter views by Sir Alan, Master of Queen's College, Oxford.

"There were people there who had something to lose. If they were party to breaking the ministerial code of conduct (by mixing private and public interests) they could be in trouble too," he argued.

Mr Blunkett's sense of his own integrity is important to him and yesterday Mr Blair endorsed it when he praised his record at the start of yesterday's cabinet.

It was attended by Mr Clarke, who was quickly promoted to home secretary, and by Ruth Kelly, the new education secretary.

Mr Blunkett said nothing to waiting reporters when he arrived at his Sheffield home. He walked his dog at Westminster yesterday. There will be "no self-pitying" retreat, friends said.

No 10 is relieved that the crisis was dealt with quickly and new ministers put almost instantly into place. Though untested Ms Kelly's appointment has generated "significant interest", officials noted.

Clive Soley, the veteran Labour MP, spoke for many colleagues when he regretted the loss of Mr Blunkett's forceful working class views in a middle class cabinet and predicted a comeback.

"My gut feeling is that he could come back after the next election. I do not think it could be before that election, but I think anytime after that elec tion is entirely possible," he said. As with Cecil Parkinson, who came back in the 80s, it would be to a lesser post, MPs suggested. No 10 said "one reshuffle at a time", though privately officials acknowledge that the Blunkett resignation is "a bit different from the others".

How much the affair has personally weakened Mr Blair divides Labour MPs. Some think he will not survive long past the coming election. "They are plotting in the tea room," said one. Others place greater faith in Mr Blair's recuperative powers.