Political blow for Blair as Blunkett resigns

 

The British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, suffered a huge personal and political blow last night when Mr David Blunkett resigned as Home Secretary after an inquiry found his office was involved in fast-tracking a visa for his former lover's nanny.

Mr Blunkett quit office after a three-week battle to survive. He maintained he had done nothing wrong, while accepting that continuing questions about his honesty had damaged the government. He suggested he had sacrificed his political career to pursue his paternity claim to former lover Mrs Kimberly Quinn's son.

However, the end came for Mr Blunkett when Sir Alan Budd - the man he appointed to investigate allegations by the Quinn camp that he had abused his office during their affair - told Mr Blunkett on Tuesday that he had found e-mails and faxes from the Home Secretary's office to immigration officials resulting in "no favours but slightly quicker" processing of the nanny's residency application.

Mr Blunkett had originally admitted checking Ms Leoncia Casalme's application to ensure it was in order. However, it was subsequently alleged that Mr Blunkett had produced a reply, which advised Ms Casalme that her application could be subject to a 12-month delay, at a meeting with officials to discuss clearing the backlog in visa applications. Mr Blunkett was forced to admit that he had put the letter in with his overnight work and that from there "it had gone into the system".

In his resignation statement Mr Blunkett insisted he had "no recollection of dealing with this in any way". Nevertheless, he conceded: "Whether or not I asked for any action to be taken is irrelevant to the inference that can be drawn . . . I have always been honest about my recollection of events. But any perception of this application being speeded up requires me to take responsibility."

That was why "with enormous regret" he had tendered his resignation after a long and plainly emotional meeting with Mr Blair.

The Prime Minister said Mr Blunkett was "a force for good" in British politics who "left government with his integrity intact". However, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats - while reflecting widespread sympathy for Mr Blunkett's personal situation - said he had made the right decision.

Mr Blair moved promptly to replace the close friend and key ally whose law and order and national security brief will be key planks in Labour's election strategy. Ironically, Mr Blunkett's replacement is Mr Charles Clarke, one of the ministers to whom he had to apologise last week for personal criticisms contained in a new biography.

Mr Clarke, also a well-known cabinet bruiser and no ally of Chancellor Gordon Brown, spent three years as a Home Office minister before becoming Education Secretary. Mr Clarke's arrival in one of the key offices of state after just seven years in parliament further marks him out as a potential leadership contender. His promotion also paved the way for that of Ms Ruth Kelly to replace him at Education. Ms Kelly was replaced as Cabinet Office Minister by Mr David Milliband, also seen as one of the rising stars of the current crop of junior ministers.

In his formal letter to Mr Blunkett, the Prime Minister said he accepted his resignation with great regret: "You have been a truly outstanding cabinet minister as both Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Education. You have made real and lasting change to Britain. You leave government with your integrity intact and your achievements acknowledged by all. You are a force for good in British politics."

However, Conservative shadow home secretary Mr David Davis said that even if Mr Blunkett had not told civil servants to "accelerate" the nanny's visa application, he had allowed it to happen and that was "wrong".

In an emotional TV interview Mr Blunkett said he had "misunderstood" the relationship he had with Mrs Quinn. "I misunderstood what we had," he said: "I misunderstood that someone could do this, not just to me, but to a little one as well."