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A cabinet heavyweight who became a tragic figure of fun


Blunkett's transformation from the man who beat blindness to arrogant libertine is a parable of New Labour itself

Jonathan Freedland
Wednesday November 2, 2005
The Guardian


Do hounds ever feel a twinge of sympathy for the fox? As they tear the flesh from the bones of their prey, do they wonder, if only for a second, how the poor creature came to land in such a desperate spot?

I ask because the dogs now closing in on David Blunkett are hobbled by an unfamiliar sensation. They did not feel it as they pursued Peter Mandelson or Stephen Byers; it never surfaced as they hunted down Beverley Hughes. They have experienced it only once - the last time they had David Blunkett on the run, nearly a year ago.

The sentiment is guilt, a sense that it might be unfair to seek the destruction of a man like Blunkett. It will not be enough to keep the hunters at bay. The Conservatives' Chris Grayling, the work and pensions secretary's chief tormentor, seems determined to finish the job; this scalp could turn him from a no-name unknown into a shadow-cabinet player. More alarming for Blunkett, Labour MPs no longer whisper their disapproval anonymously to newspaper journalists. Yesterday they were happy to go on the radio, telling Blunkett his time was up. Worst of all, the endorsement from the prime minister has been weak. Tony Blair turned the rhetorical dial to its coolest setting on Monday: "I do give him my confidence."

It adds up to what could be the final stage of one of the strangest, and saddest, transformations in recent British political history. It is a story that says something about the state of the government, but rather more about one individual. This is a case where the political is very personal.

The transformation itself beggars belief. In the 1980s David Blunkett was associated with the municipal left, as the leader of Sheffield council in an age when red flags flew from the town halls. Rapidly he built a reputation as a man of rigour, solid principles and hard work. Along with Gordon Brown, he came to embody a Labour ethic of flinty self-discipline, even self-sacrifice. In Labour's first term, Blunkett sealed that reputation by serving as a no-nonsense education secretary, his legacy the literacy hour. Blair would joke that naughty children would get a visit from Blunkett to make sure they did their homework.

That man is a distant ancestor of the figure on the front pages of 2005. Now he is cast not as the moral scold of old, but as an unlikely libertine, carousing at Annabel's with a "mystery blonde". Once the only money he cared about was the rates in Sheffield; now we know he looked to make fast cash through, of all things, a paternity-testing company. Once his public appearances were confined to the dispatch box or Newsnight. Now he is the star of the London stage and a Channel 4 satirical drama, with his own love life as the storyline. A heavyweight, talked of as a possible prime minister, is now a figure of fun.

How has this happened? The unkind theory is that Blunkett was an accident waiting to happen. Impossibly arrogant, it was only a matter of time before he broke one rule too many - and found he had few friends left to defend him. According to this version, Blunkett's blindness was, by the crude measure of politics, an advantage: it insulated him from the criticism that would have rained down on anyone else who behaved so high-handedly. At Sheffield council Blunkett was known for a burning temper, throwing tantrums when he didn't get his own way. Later he hinted that these outbursts were calculated; other people could not have got away with being so rude, but he knew that few people would relish a shouting match with a blind man.

Even his friends do not deny the arrogance; indeed they integrate it into a sympathetic portrait of the man. For Blunkett's generous view of himself is linked with his extraordinary life story. Even putting his disability to one side, he escaped a childhood of grinding poverty and terrible misfortune (his father died when he fell into a vat of boiling water). Ever since, says his biographer Stephen Pollard, Blunkett has struggled to respect those who have not achieved at an equal rate. "His attitude is 'I managed to pull myself out of this, why can't you?' " The blindness played a part here too. Blunkett's mother would tell her young son that he was not just the same as other people - he was better. And the child believed it.

It is possible that this self-confidence fed a sense of immunity from the rules that apply to lesser mortals. How else to explain how Blunkett could make the same mistake three times - failing to consult the committee that advises ex-ministers on the jobs they can do afterwards - despite repeated warnings? The chair of that committee, Lord Mayhew, all but told Blunkett he had nothing to fear from them, that he needed merely to go through the motions. But he broke the rules anyway.

Blunkett's high opinion of himself may also explain what could turn out to be a fatal political weakness: his lack of allies. He turned several former friends into enemies by slating them to Pollard a year ago - an act of recklessness itself emblematic of the change in him - and they will do nothing to help him now. If he is hanging on the precipice by his fingers, they may well be tempted to tread on his knuckles.

So Charles Clarke, whom Blunkett branded as "soft", or Jack Straw, who left the Home Office in "a giant mess", or Patricia Hewitt, "not a strategic thinker", will not weep for their cabinet colleague.

But arrogance cannot explain it all, not if this has been a trait of Blunkett's since the beginning. Some wonder if the rot set in when he moved to the Home Office. He had dealt with education as a council leader, but this was wholly unfamiliar terrain. Suddenly his political touch seemed less sure.

Until then he had successfully ridden the twin tigers represented by the Daily Mail and the Guardian. As education secretary he had won the admiration of both those tribes; they could both support his emphasis on raising standards, either as a return to the three Rs for the Mail or as a bid to ensure better public services for the less well-off for the Guardian. That is not an easy trick to pull off (again, Brown is the only other politician who has managed it).

At the Home Office Blunkett's grip began to slip. His tough talk on immigration, including a reckless use of the word "swamped", and his hectoring of ethnic minorities alienated the Guardian tribe long ago. Some wonder if his loss of crucial special advisers Connor Ryan and Mike Lee dulled his political antennae, robbing him of people who would dare to tell him no.

But all this is to dodge the elephant in the room. The simplest explanation for the shift may well be the most personal: that Blunkett fell in love and lost his head. Suddenly he was introduced to a Spectator set that valued none of the earnest diligence that appealed to both Mail and Guardian types. It believed neither in working hard nor playing by the rules - and Blunkett seemed to get drawn in. Or, less complicatedly, he may just have lost his judgment.

No one can know for sure what's gone on inside David Blunkett's head and heart. But the external impact is clear enough. He is finished as a credible, independent politician; he will exist from now on as the creature of the PM's goodwill. And his story will endure, living on as a kind of parable of the strange journey Labour itself made over two remarkable decades.

freedland@guardian.co.uk