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Blair's kind of respect


If Blunkett goes, the prime minister is likely to take over the home secretary's security agenda himself

Jonathan Freedland
Wednesday December 8, 2004
The Guardian


The pre-Christmas party game, played in whispers in Westminster just now, is: Who Replaces Blunkett? If the home secretary were to go the way of other cabinet ministers - Conservative and Labour - who have found their private lives dominating the news, who might then fill his shoes? Here's a name few are tipping but who may turn out to be the smartest bet: Tony Blair.

For the moment, of course, the prime minister is insisting, publicly and privately, that David Blunkett is staying in his post. He is certainly doing all he can to keep him there, resisting any calls for a widening of the remit of the home secretary's inquisitor, Sir Alan Budd, and loudly pre-judging that inquiry by declaring his confidence that Blunkett will be exonerated. Even when further embarrassment landed on the besieged minister's lap - with Monday's airing of unofficial, and unflattering, views of his colleagues via advance extracts from a forthcoming biography - the vultures were kept at bay. And those ministers who had been dissed by Blunkett knew better than to signal his time was up. They didn't want to be at odds with the word from No 10 which remains "Blunkett stays".

The conventional wisdom explains this tenacity of faith in the home secretary quite straightforwardly. First, he's a star performer, one of a handful of reliable "deliverers". Second, he happens to be in charge of a critical, perhaps defining, part of Labour's programme for the next election.

In marketing language, Labour's "offer" to the voters will be a double one: security and opportunity. The latter half is the familiar electoral fare of jobs, prosperity and the like, but the first element in the equation is the agenda which so dominated last month's Queen's speech: the government's promise to protect us from terror and from crime, whether through ID cards or Asbos. David Blunkett is not just in charge of this agenda - he has come to embody it.

The explanation lies partly in the third reason for his continuing survival. His personal style and biography give him a unique credibility in the area for which he is responsible. When he talks of cracking down on the hoodlums and thugs who make life miserable on Britain's poorest estates, people listen because they suspect Blunkett knows whereof he speaks. They allow him to talk tough because they know he has lived tough.

All of which combines to make the PM reluctant to let go. His current position is that both the Budd inquiry and the court battle over access to the child the home secretary claims as his should be allowed to run their course. Even if Blunkett emerges covered in sticky, personal mud, Blair believes that's not reason enough to remove him. (Blair seems to have jettisoned the old, Alastair Campbell standard which held that perceived, rather than actual, wrongdoing could be sufficient grounds for an early exit. Blair reckons that approach gives too much power to the ones doing the perceiving, namely the press.)

Nevertheless, the prime minister is nothing if not a realist, and he has contemplated the possibility that Blunkett might eventually succumb, if only to sheer emotional fatigue. He knows that would leave a large hole in his government, but refuses to see it as one that could not be filled. After all, there is someone who could play the Blunkett role just as convincingly as Blunkett: himself.

My understanding is that the PM believes he is as personally associated with the wars on crime and terror as his loyal lieutenant. He may not have the backstory of the northern, working-class man who knows hardship all too intimately - indeed, his own relatively smooth life has been the very opposite of Blunkett's - but he has got a record to run on. He made his name by talking "tough on crime" as a Home Office shadow in the early 1990s, and vigilance against post-9/11 terrorism is a wholly-owned Blair enterprise. He reckons that, even with Blunkett gone, the programme would proceed - with him rather than his home secretary driving it forward.

Which is not to say, of course, that Tony Blair would actually sit in the Home Office himself: he would grant that pleasure to John Reid or perhaps Charles Clarke. It's just that Blunkett's replacement would not be expected to shoulder the same political burden as his predecessor. That would shift to Downing Street.

The result would be a fascinating reversion to form for the next election. For, in that situation, the Labour "offer" of security and opportunity would be made by that most familiar of double-acts: Blair and Brown.

The only option not on the table is letting the Blunkett agenda go down with him. The prime minister regards it as simply too important. Sceptics say it's pure electoral calculation, a determination by Labour to avoid the US Democrats' mistake - and to let no one brand them weak on security. But the view from the top is that it is much more principled than that.

In the Blairite mind, no progressive party can ignore the constant pleas of its own core, low-income voters - people who repeat that anti-social behaviour is the chief bane of their lives. A party which claims to speak for the weak and vulnerable must act for the old lady too frightened to go shopping because of the gang of teenage louts on her street, or the single mum who has to steer her pushchair past the neighbourhood crack dealer. Blair sees liberal, chattering class disdain for the Asbo agenda as nothing less than indifference to the poor.

Besides, surely liberals can see that all this is the flipside of a raft of Labour measures they do support - from gay rights to better legal protection for women and ethnic minorities. Blair believes he's been a "1960s liberal" on those issues, if anything going further than earlier progressives would have dared. From equalising the age of consent, to giving Muslims the same legal cover from hate speech as Christians, he reckons he can be proud of his liberal credentials.

For Blair, this is one step towards creating what he likes to call a "society without prejudice, but with rules". The other step is that Blunkett programme for the council estates. Downing Street sees these two approaches as logically linked, with respect the element in common. The gay teenager deserves respect, but so does the homeowner kept awake by noisy neighbours. Labour's Guardian-friendly agenda does half the job; the measures which so delight the Daily Mail do the rest.

Ideally, he'd like David Blunkett to be putting at least the second half of that case next May. (The right-on stuff tends to be said in a quieter voice.) But if he is gone, No 10 will cope. For one thing, it will be spared a headache: the government will no longer have to face down the Fathers4Justice movement with a senior minister who looks set to become their newest recruit. More importantly, Labour will be led by a man who confidently believes he could do the job just as well.

freedland@guardian.co.uk