Blunkett resigns but claims he did no wrong

 

BRITAIN: Fast-tracking a visa application for his lover's nanny and overly candid comments about his cabinet colleagues did for David Blunkett in the end, writes Frank Millar

David Blunkett resigned as Home Secretary last night insisting he had done nothing wrong but that he was departing to preserve the integrity of the Blair government and his own self-respect.

Fighting back tears testifying to "the worst three weeks" of his life, Mr Blunkett evoked much sympathy at Westminster as he spoke of mistakes made in love, suggesting his alleged abuse of office would never have surfaced had he accepted the invitation back in September to walk out of the life of the little boy born of his affair with Mrs Kimberly Quinn.

Yet the tipping-point for Mr Blunkett had come on Tuesday when Sir Alan Budd - the man he appointed to investigate the allegations made by "friends" of Mrs Quinn to The Sunday Telegraph - told him he had found a smoking gun, or at any rate the paper and e-mail trail. This showed that his office had been involved in fast-tracking a visa application for his former lover's nanny.

This paper trail involved a fax and an exchange of e-mails between Mr Blunkett's office and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. Crucially the exchanges related not to the nanny's original application (which Mr Blunkett had admitted reading over to check it was in order) but a letter from the Home Office to Ms Leoncia Casalme telling her that her application could be subject to a 12-month delay.

Mr Blunkett said last night he had used the letter to illustrate his department's need to get to grips with the backlog, and that he had then put it in with his overnight work as a result of which the letter "had gone into the system".

Insisting he would still be cleared of wrongdoing by the Budd inquiry, Mr Blunkett said: "I have no recollection of dealing with this in any way. However, whether or not I asked for any action to be taken is irrelevant to the inference that can be drawn. Given I have no recollection of issuing instructions to deal with the application, but only to continuing the elimination of the backlog in general, the easy thing would be to hide behind my officials. I will not do such a thing. In no way is my office or any individual within the department to blame for what happened."

There are plenty of sceptics around Westminster who will conclude that it simply was not going to be possible for Mr Blunkett to hide behind officials. As one cheerful Labour insider put it last night: "Nobody ever resigns from this government for doing anything wrong." In any event, and while nobody seemingly was to blame, the Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, had to accept that Mr Blunkett should take the rap.

And it could hardly have been otherwise, no matter that this "populist" Home Secretary was to have been a central figure in Labour's bid for a historic third term in the election expected next summer. No matter that Mr Blunkett, the one-time firebrand left-wing leader of Sheffield Council, was apparently able to refresh the parts of Labour Mr Blair could not reach. No matter either, and much more important than his public policy role, that this was a really important ally of the Prime Minister with critical weight in the battle for power and control around the cabinet table. Mr Blair had staked his own authority and credibility in the confident assertion that the Budd inquiry would clear Mr Blunkett.

There were in fact signs earlier this week that Mr Blair's confidence had been shaken. And by the time the two men held their long and evidently emotional conversation in Downing Street yesterday, Mr Blair was painfully aware that other members of the cabinet were not exactly queuing at the door to beg Mr Blunkett to stay. He has had to personally apologise to large numbers of them over the last week following publication of his criticisms of them - Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and Charles Clarke included - in an explosive new biography brought forward for early publication following the revelations about his affair with Mrs Quinn. Some of those criticised had been among the most conspicuous in Mr Blunkett's defence when the first wave of allegations hit the headlines.

But by yesterday, as Mr Blunkett was forced to deny fresh claims that he also helped fast-track an Austrian tourist visa for the nanny, clever punters were betting on his resignation, as one senior Labour backbencher voiced the private view of many when he described the Home Secretary as "unbalanced". For Bob Marshall-Andrews and many other Labour MPs, the personal tipping-point had come on Monday night when Mr Blunkett turned up at the backbenchers' annual Christmas dinner and treated them to an extraordinary musical intervention. In a presumed show of defiance and resolution Mr Blunkett reportedly handed out the words and then sang "Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off, and Start All Over Again".

He was already doing that last night, vowing to stand in the election and campaign for a third Labour term. But he will be doing it shorn of the trappings of office and power, from the backbenches, where sympathy for the humiliation of a plainly remarkable man - blind from birth, once thought a future prime minister - will be tempered by the belief that he should have admitted "mistakes made in love" and gone earlier.

The scourge now of "airy fairy libertarians" and the "liberati", praised for his grasp of grassroots policing and feared by many immigration and human rights activists, Mr Blunkett made the transition from fiery leftist - once flying the Red Flag on Sheffield City Hall and craving "independence" from the US - to become the embodiment of New Labour. It will not be lost on the Prime Minister that Mr Blunkett's final contribution was to remind so many of the issue on which they find New Labour lacking: trust.