David Blunkett: A career forged in the pain of childhood, and fired by a desire to right injustice

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Even as recently as last week, ministers were saying the resignation of David Blunkett would be a disaster for Labour.

Even as recently as last week, ministers were saying the resignation of David Blunkett would be a disaster for Labour.

That confidence, coming weeks after the revelations of an affair and allegations of misconduct which would have tested the most secure cabinet minister, reflected the standing of a man who has held two of the central positions in the Blair government since 1997.

From his work driving education reforms in 1997 to his planned role at the heart of the Government's programme for the next general election, the 57-year-old former Sheffield council leader has been at the heart of Labour's fortunes.

Mr Blunkett is a zealot for reform who has combined left-wing roots with a social conservatism which has won him right-wing support from The Sun to the Daily Mail.

But his carefully fostered links with the press have not spared him from a torrent of stories about his three-year affair with Kimberly Quinn, publisher of The Spectator, and his increasingly acrimonious battle for access to the son he believes is his.

His extraordinary legal battle, made public this month, showed a man prepared to risk his career for his personal life.

Former colleagues speak of a driven and passionate man with a phenomenal intellect and command of detail, and a direct, no-nonsense style that has endeared him to the electorate and the press.

Mr Blunkett is famed across Whitehall for his grasp of his brief despite being blind from birth and reliant on Braille or being read documents by aides.

His first ministerial presentation to Tony Blair after the election was said to be marred by Braille accidentally printed out in Swedish by officials.

But at one meeting to discuss a complex spending White Paper when he was education secretary he astonished his civil servants by rattling out figures and tables from memory so fast his sighted aides struggled to keep pace.

Even as Home Secretary, recognised as one of the most demanding jobs in government, his opponents have failed to catch him out on a point of detail.

He is warm, witty and respected by his staff, but he also has a fiery temperament and a deep frustration at criticism by liberal-minded critics. Former acquaintances tell of how he remembered them with an anecdote on meeting them years later.

Mr Blunkett, who split from his wife Ruth in 1987, is also devoted to his three sons Alistair, Hugh and Andrew.

The weekly job of reading the Sunday newspapers to Mr Blunkett was regarded with trepidation by staff. Applicants to be his chief press officer this year had to undergo a gruelling, role-playing exercise trying to pacify an incandescent Home Secretary.

He has not concealed his dislike of the liberal press or liberal judges when they criticise his more controversial measures, and he has risked condemnation with outspoken comments such as his demand that immigrants should be able to speak English.

He has been heavily influenced by his Methodism and his experiences as a blind boy growing up in Sheffield in the 1950s and 60s.

He was born in the city of Sheffield in 1947 to Arthur and Doris Blunkett. But he suffered loneliness and heartbreak from a tender age when he was taken from his parents to attend the Sheffield School for the Blind.

He said: "The anguish I felt was heart-wrenching" at entering the harsh regime without parents, which undoubtedly gave him an antipathy towards special schools which he took to his days at the education department. He had to fight the school authorities to take examinations before winning a place at Sheffield University. At just 12 he lost his father, who died after falling into a vat of boiling water at work in an industrial accident at a gas works. The experience deeply scarred the young boy who, years later, wrote vividly of the experience in his biography.

Mr Blunkett, a life-long Labour supporter who joined the party at 16, rose to be the youngest leader of Sheffield city council in 1980. He won fame as one of a group of left-wing council leaders who defied the Thatcher government, and earned his home city the title of "People's Republic of South Yorkshire".

Writing about his motivation for working in Government in 2001 he said: "Fired by the injustice and the day to day struggles I saw around me on a north Sheffield council estate I was determined to use those structures to bring about further change and improvement. I wanted to stimulate a new sense of aspiration in those for whom personal success had long been denied by political and economic inequality." Mr Blunkett won a seat on Labour's national executive in 1985 and entered Parliament as the MP for Sheffield Brightside two years later. He served in opposition front-bench jobs, and Tony Blair appointed him Secretary of State for Education after the landslide victory of 1997, to drive forward the party's priority, described as "education, education education".

He introduced the national literacy and numeracy strategy and threatened to resign if targets for maths and English were not met, a pledge his successor Estelle Morris fulfilled for him.

His standing was such that his promotion to Home Secretary was an open secret across Whitehall.As Home Secretary, Mr Blunkett has won a reputation as a hardline authoritarian, cracking down on asylum applications and setting up a system of managed migration.