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Dec 9 2004

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,172-1393177,00.html

When Blair calls in the poodles, we have only the press wolves to save us

Simon Jenkins

ONLY ONE person can sack the Home Secretary and he says he won’t. His name is Tony Blair. All else about the David Blunkett/Kimberly Quinn affair is spin, humbug, schlock and British constitution. By yesterday Westminster was asserting that Mr Blunkett was in the clear. The message had gone out from No 10 that Tony was not going to lose his Home Secretary just before an election. To him, Mr Blunkett is what Donald Rumsfeld is to George Bush. He is the talisman. He embodies the re-election strategy of security, law and order. So long as Mr Blunkett passes six draconian statutes by next May, keeps insulting judges and crams more villains into jail, he is safe with Mr Blair.

So what, you ask, is the point of Sir Alan Budd’s inquiry into Mr Blunkett’s alleged favours to Mrs Quinn? What, indeed?

The loss of Latin as the state language has deprived public life of much worthwhile usage. This includes the interrogative prefixes nonne and num, for questions expecting the answers yes or no. The great Latin lexicographers, Lewis and Short, comment sadly that “there is no corresponding term in English”.

But there is. The prefix num clearly applies to questions asked by Mr Blair of inquiries into his own conduct or that of his ministers. Potentially embarrassing investigations by Lord Hutton, Lord Butler of Brockwell, Sir Alan Budd and others always carry an implicit num, meaning “surely not”. Such investigations should be termed “num inquiries”.

Sir Alan was asked, initially by Mr Blunkett, to investigate any wrongdoing in Mr Blunkett’s use of Mr Blunkett’s officials to assist Mr Blunkett’s girlfriend’s nanny’s visa application. He was told to look into nothing else and to report to Mr Blunkett’s boss, Mr Blair. Sir Alan was picked by his old Treasury chum and Mr Blunkett’s Permanent Secretary, John Gieve. It was suggested to him, via the press, that if he found any blame attaching anywhere, it should not be on Mr Blunkett but on officials in Mr Blunkett’s office. They may, quite wrongly, have thought that when Mr Blunkett indicated that Mrs Quinn’s affairs should be “looked into”, he never meant “followed up”.

Nor was this abject withdrawal of ministerial responsibility the end. The man who must decide what to do with Sir Alan’s findings will be the Prime Minister. So in case Sir Alan was still two texts short of a message, Mr Blair announced that he had “no doubt that Mr Blunkett will be exonerated”. As for a raft of separate accusations against Mr Blunkett, Mr Blair added for good measure on November 10 that “the Home Office will deal with other less serious allegations”. In other words, Mr Blunkett would investigate himself.

This parody of inquisitorial justice would do credit to Kafka’s castle, if not Stalin’s Kremlin. I have no comment to make on Mr Blunkett’s private life. A refreshing outcome of this affair is that we might be spared government homilies on family values in the coming election. Nor do I see the tangentially official aspects of the Quinn affair as hanging offences. The perks that go with high office in Britain are pretty paltry. With the Prime Minister ordering private jets and a fat-cat pension, Mr Blunkett’s gestures towards Mrs Quinn seem petty.

What is outrageous is the cynicism of the Government’s response. There is a clear ministerial code of conduct administered by Parliament, which Mr Blunkett appears prima facie to have breached. After Labour cries of sleaze against the past Tory Government, a bureaucracy of redress was put in place. There is a parliamentary standards watchdog, Sir Philip Mawer. There is a Committee on Standards in Public Life under Sir Alistair Graham. There is a procedure for whistle-blowing, inspection and hearings.

If that were not enough, there could be an inquiry under the 1921 Tribunals of Inquiry Act, as used to be held into Budget leaks or sex-and-spies scandals. This has fallen into disuse because the resulting inquiries tended to be hard for the governments to control. The last inquiry of this sort (though not a 1921 one) was by Lord Scott into the sale of arms to Iraq in 1995. It proved a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Today there is no way that Mr Blair would risk his or his colleagues’ reputations with the likes of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, or the Master of the Rolls. Instead, the Government fixes its own system. The Prime Minister went to great pains to select Lord Hutton as safe enough to look into the David Kelly affair. With his career on the line and the Augean Stables awash in slurry, Mr Blair sought a feather duster. He later turned to the equally safe hands of Lord Butler.

The use of former public officials to allocate blame on politicians is cunning. Their integrity is beyond criticism, but so is their natural deference. Told that the fate of a minister, indeed a prime minister, is “in their hands”, they understandably duck the question. Toppling democratic government is not what they do. Besides, Sir Alan is running a public institution, a college. He has no interest in rocking any boat.

Lord Hutton was asked, in effect, to sack Mr Blair. So was Lord Butler. Both declined to do so. Sir Alan is now being asked to end Mr Blunkett’s ministerial career. The stakes are carefully stacked that high. Mr Blair knows what he is about. He is Richard III inviting Lady Anne to stab his naked chest, “lending thee this sharp-pointed sword”. She may want him frying in hell, “but I will not be your executioner”. That task today is delegated to democracy. But since democracy, that is Parliament, has delegated it back to Mr Blair, he can engineer another exoneration and leave Parliament an irrelevance.

If neither Parliament nor the inquiry system can lay a finger on the executive, who can? The ministerial watchdogs, Sir Philip Mawer and Sir Alistair Graham, are toothless, though yesterday Sir Philip did begin to stir himself. House of Commons committees are in the hands of such Blair trusties as Anne Taylor (the intelligence committee), Donald Anderson (foreign affairs) and Bruce George (defence). No account need be rendered because none is demanded by constitutional authority. All power lies with Downing Street.

Or not quite all. There remains the proxy democracy of the media, the accountability of hue and cry and the lynch mob. Most commentators this week have taken the view that the Home Secretary’s actions were not so heinous as to justify resignation. They deserved abject contrition and humility towards the sins of others — albeit implausible qualities in a Home Secretary. But that was seldom the issue. The issue was that Mr Blunkett was so arrogant and illiberal a Home Secretary that any stick would do to get him down. If MPs would not criticise him, if the judiciary were his poodles and the Civil Service his acolytes, then the media would declare open season on him, private life and all.

The British media is customarily described as the most reptilian in the free world. The reputation is well earned. But I believe that its undeniable savagery to those in the public eye results from the absence of other means of accountability. The Blair Government, like it or loathe it, gets away with murder because the Commons no longer acts as a constraint on the executive. Even the Lords does a better job. Those who dislike Mr Blunkett’s performance as Home Secretary are never allowed sight of the ball. Every move is staged and spun and obfuscated.

As a result, the media plays the man. When they spot blood, when they see a minister wounded and at bay, they pounce. It is the only way to call him to account. Such an account may not be fair nor fit for purpose. But it is inevitable when government gums up the wheels of politics.