David Blunkett: 'I'd like to come back but I have to earn it. That means the graft of getting round the country'

The sniffer dog, a spaniel, was the first clue. Then the small posse of police wearing earpieces and flak jackets confirmed the suspicions. The target was heading for platform five at King's Cross station.

The sniffer dog, a spaniel, was the first clue. Then the small posse of police wearing earpieces and flak jackets confirmed the suspicions. The target was heading for platform five at King's Cross station.

David Blunkett walked briskly on to the platform with his dog, flanked by the armed police escort and his personal bodyguards, who always travel with him. The former home secretary has many enemies.

There are the al-Qa'ida fanatics who threaten a terrorist attack on the forthcoming election and would view the man who ordered the detention without trial of suspects in Belmarsh as a prime target.

There are the cabinet ministers he laid into in the unauthorised biography - Patricia Hewitt could not "think strategically", John Prescott "never quite cottoned on", and Charles Clarke under whom the education department, Mr Blunkett's old portfolio, had "gone soft".

There are the Quinns, the businessman and the American socialite, entangled in the "personal tragedy" of Mr Blunkett's traumatic private life. And there is the media, which door-stepped Mr Blunkett day and night, including Christmas Day, after his two-year affair with Kimberly Quinn broke into the open.

Mr Blunkett stops at the carriage entrance for a photograph. "Do you want one of me in the doorway?" The police twitch at the delay, and his dog, Sadie, a black Labrador-retriever cross, and half-sister of Lucy, his former guide dog, faithfully puts a paw on the step.

We are in first class, with neighbouring passengers reconciled to having a media target in their midst. The train is going north, but this is the Blunkett Express back to the front line.

He has had a week of interviews, including Breakfast with Frost, covering his views on Englishness, the need for a different style of manifesto, and his tangled personal life - he denies ever saying "Kimberly was the love of my life" but she was clearly that. It all signals that, having licked his wounds for three months, the MP for Sheffield Brightside is ready for the big political stage again.

"I feel strong again," he said. "It's all hands to the pump and that is what I am doing with a vengeance. I would like to come back, but I have to earn it. That means doing the graft of getting around the country."

He has discussed with Tony Blair the role he will play in the election - he will be leading the campaign on ID cards, which the Tories now oppose - although he insists he has not been promised a cabinet job, despite speculation that he will be brought back to oversee delivery, a role currently in the hands of the Deputy Prime Minister.

His reputation for being tough - critics say authoritarian - means he will be a box-office draw. Mr Blair will be happy to see him turning the tables on the Tories, who stand accused of being soft on terrorism for opposing the Prevention of Terrorism Bill earlier this month.

Mr Blunkett is convinced that when a series of current court cases are completed, the public will be on his side. "People might get a shock; those who say there was no threat will have to eat their words," he said. "There hasn't been an attack on Britain because of the work of the intelligence and security services.

"People will look back and say 'thank goodness we protected ourselves', not [just] because we prevented individuals and their network from attacking, but because we made a difficult environment for them and were not a soft touch."

Mr Blunkett said he wanted the public to be "alert but not alarmed", in contrast to Sir John Stevens, the former Metropolitan Police commissioner who said an attack was "inevitable".

But he has no doubt that al-Qa'ida will target the election campaign. "Given what happened in Madrid a year ago, we would be foolish not to take this seriously," he said. But there has been no specific threat to bomb the British elections. "If there had been a specific threat we would have been aware of it," he said.

Some of his former colleagues blame Mr Blunkett for the debacle over the Prevention of Terrorism Bill; his successor, Mr Clarke, was forced to retreat to get it through the Lords. Cabinet ministers privately say Mr Blunkett should have acted more quickly to bring in the legislation. He pleads not guilty: "There were three reasons why we weren't able to act prior to 16 December - one was that we had won unanimously in the Appeal Court chaired by Lord [Harry] Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice. And therefore we had a pretty good presumption there was a senior coterie of judges who believed that - while there was a case for saying the act was discriminatory because we had debated it - it was proportionate.

"Second, the Attorney General [Lord Goldsmith] quite rightly said that if you put anything together that was an alternative to Belmarsh and Broadmoor you will immediately undermine my case with the law lords. Given the history of leaks from the Home Office and the Cabinet Office, he quite rightly counselled us against attempting to do that.

"Third, I had published a consultation paper on acts preparatory to terrorism and floated the idea of orders that would allow controls to be put in place which, if broken, would allow the introduction of the criminal law, which is partly what is now planned."

In a sideswipe at cabinet critics today who say he failed to act more quickly, Mr Blunkett said they had not come up with any better ideas when he asked them to contribute. "I challenged, at the time of that consultation, if people thought they had smart ideas they should come forward with them. There has been a deathly silence," he said.

"I understand why people want someone to blame, but neither Charlie nor I are to blame on this occasion."

Given the number of clashes he had with the judges, I wondered whether he nursed a plan to change the role of the judiciary? "It is difficult for me to applaud Harry Woolf and then vehemently attack judges in general. All I would say: I did think most people would read Lord Hoffman's [one of the Law Lords in the Belmarsh case] thoughts with what might - in my new role as The Understater of the Obvious - find extraordinary interesting, that my Act was a greater threat to our life and wellbeing than al-Qa'ida."

He chuckles to himself, something that for the past three months has been rare. But he produces a belly laugh that wakes the other GNR travellers when I tell him that a rumour among the judges is that he is to be appointed the next Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs in charge of running the courts. "Oh dear, very good," he said, slapping a thigh and going red in the face.

Anyone who knows Mr Blunkett knows he has a powerful sense of his own place in politics. He told David Frost that he had learnt humility after the damaging remarks about the rest of the Cabinet. Mr Prescott called him "arrogant" and he profusely apologised to individual cabinet ministers.

That is behind him now, and Mr Blair clearly bears no grudges. There is a strong sense that he is again a man with a mission - to get back into the Cabinet. He has a reputation for wanting to act as a conciliator, and our talk showed he sees himself as being a "bridge" between the Brownites and the Blairites after the election.

"We have to bridge the gap between stick your feet in the mud and defend what is already happening on the ground at all costs and [those who] think up anything that gives the impression of modern change," he said.

The elephant in the carriage is the Kimberly Quinn affair. His court battle to gain access to his son by her, William, will be heard in private before the end of the month and after a briefing war by both sides, he is desperate to avoid giving ammunition that could damage his case. Asked whether he still missed her, he said: "I am not going to answer that question."

Privately, it is clear he does, but he vehemently denies the quotes attributed to him in one weekend interview. Those around Mr Blunkett say he thought she loved him, as he loved her, and that despite their different backgrounds, "it could work". His friends say he wears his heart on his sleeve. His critics say he has been a fool.

He told me he would be wary about plunging into another relationship after this painful experience. "I don"t fancy being alone for the next 30 years," he said, "But I don"t want to rush into another relationship."

He jokes that his sons, who have been his support after his crash from high office, would have a restraining hand on him next time he looks like falling headlong in love. "My sons had better look after my love life in future," he laughed.

The stress of the three months since his resignation on 15 December has taken its toll. He has lost another half-stone, on top of the two stones he lost after a stomach operation. He is also seeing a chiropractor "to unlock my neck and shoulders from the trials and tribulations of being David Blunkett."

This weekend, he went for a walk with his dog in the grounds of Chatsworth, the stately home of the Devonshires. It is near the cottage in the Derbyshire countryside, where he had his trysts with Ms Quinn and which he planned to extend to settle down with Kimblerly and William.

For the foreseeable future, however, he will never be alone. His bodyguards will be with him every step of the way.

THE CV

Born 6 June 1947

Education Sheffield School for the Blind; Royal Normal College for the blind; Shrewsbury Technical College; Sheffield Richmond College for Further Education; University of Sheffield and Huddersfield College of Education

Marital status divorced, four sons

Career

1973 Member of South Yorkshire County Council

1980 Leader of Sheffield City Council

1987 Elected Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside

1988 Shadow Environment Minister (local government)

1992 Shadow Secretary of State for Health

1994 Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment

1997 Secretary of State for Education and Employment

2001 Home Secretary

2004 Resigns as Home Secretary

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