David Blunkett: Tough love

As the most authoritarian home secretary Labour has produced, he has pinned his career on tackling undesirable behaviour, be it drug abuse, binge drinking or crime. But as his private life becomes public, he is being accused of hypocrisy. Politicians have closed ranks around him, but his hope of further promotion must be over
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The Independent Online

No one could say that David Blunkett has ever been shy of publicity - neither this week, nor at any time since he was a student with his mind on a career in politics.

No one could say that David Blunkett has ever been shy of publicity - neither this week, nor at any time since he was a student with his mind on a career in politics.

Last Tuesday's Queen's Speech was in a large measure David Blunkett's speech, with the Home Secretary's proposals for combating drug abuse, alcoholism, terrorism, organised crime and other forms of criminal or anti-social behaviour making up its central theme. No fewer than 10 Bills trailed in the speech ­ nearly one-third of the total ­ were Blunkett's babies, and he was everywhere, vigorously taking on paternal responsibility for them.

Yet all week there has been a curious disjuncture between the things that David Blunkett has been discussing in public and what members of the public are talking about among themselves. If you hear the name David Blunkett mentioned in the chip shop, it will be unlikely that the customers are discussing the national ID card scheme. It is more likely that they have been reading about the turmoil in the Home Secretary's personal life.

His now ended relationship with Kimberly Quinn, a married woman better known as Kimberly Fortier, publisher of The Spectator magazine, and the dispute about who fathered her two children is, in the popular view, another tale of a politician who tells people how they should behave while misbehaving himself. Richard Littlejohn, in The Sun, wondered how Blunkett's defenders would feel "if he'd been playing happy families with their wives and children". Vanessa Feltz, in the Daily Express, asked, "How much longer will we have to bear being bossed around by a man who is prepared to put a marriage and two children through the public wringer?"

This is, after all, the man who is cracking down on all manner of undesirable behaviour, from serious crime to petty nuisance. He is preparing legislation to stop the young from taking drugs, to crack down on people who make a nuisance of themselves when they are drunk, and to curb the excesses of animal rights activists. He is the only Cabinet minister who, in the past, opposed lowering the age of consent for gay sex. His long-standing reputation for conservatism ­ almost prudishness ­ in views on sex goes back to his first television appearance, during the Swinging Sixties, when the BBC received an irate letter from a 20-year-old Sheffield student about naked bodies shown on prime-time television. It was only after they had invited him down to London to take part in a televised debate with Mary Whitehouse and David Dimbleby that they discovered he was blind. He had been watching television with his mother.

More recently he argued that "governments cannot and should not be held directly responsible for personal and family relationships ... Too many people feel that it is always the responsibility of the State to pick up the pieces when things go wrong." The same conservatism was visible even in the 1980s, when in other respects he was identified with the radical left of the Labour Party. But then he had a vastly different background from the middle-class ex-students who dominated the left.

As well as being born blind, he was brought up as the only child of elderly parents, and went through a period of extreme financial hardship when he was 12 years old, and his father, Arthur Blunkett, was killed in a horrible industrial accident, attributable to the carelessness of a fellow employee at the East Midlands Gas Board. The gas board refused to compensate the family on the grounds that the dead man was past retirement age, meaning that his widow had no claim for lost earnings. As he later recalled, their behaviour was "more reminiscent of the worst private employer than a publicly owned industry."

One of the Home Office Bills trailed in last week's speech, which Blunkett has defended against opposition from other Cabinet ministers, would create a new offence of corporate manslaughter. He has insisted that it should apply to public bodies, as well as private companies, a view not popular with parts of the civil service.

The poverty that he and his mother endured, when they were still grieving, is a source of Blunkett's social conservatism. His view is that spoilt middle-class radicals are guilty of "sentimentalising" poverty. He believes that what the respectably poor want is to escape poverty and achieve success, and that success comes from self-discipline. He believed the same when he was identified with the Labour left, as the leader of one of the country's highest spending councils.

David Blunkett's formative years were spent at single-sex boarding schools for the blind. After school, his life was consumed by the struggle to get through university, and then by politics. He joined Sheffield council in 1970, aged only 22.

This role was doubly demanding for a blind man who refused to let his disability put him at a disadvantage. When others were taking time off, Blunkett was reading the Braille transcriptions or listening to the tapes of papers he needed for the next day's meeting. Other councillors might sneakily read their papers while the meeting was in progress; Blunkett had to memorise the lot beforehand. That has been the pattern of a hard-working life.

He was married in 1970, the same year as his political career began, but the marriage was heading for the rocks by the mid-1980s, and ended in formal separation when he became an MP, in 1987, and divorce three years later. He tried, nonetheless, to continue to be a father to their three boys.

The view that Blunkett is a hypocrite and marriage breaker who deserves exposure has not been shared by any of his peer group in Westminster. Perhaps the loudest silence on the Blunkett affair ­ at the insistence of Michael Howard, until last night at least ­ has been from the Conservative front bench, from which Boris Johnson was abruptly sacked only a fortnight ago, after revelations about his private life. In Blunkett's case, the Tories have been saying they have seen no evidenceof deceit or abuse of office.

Even the ferocious John Humphrys failed to raise the affair when Blunkett appeared on the Today programme last week. Kevin Marsh, Today's editor, explained: "I take the view that it's a private matter, and until someone finds evidence that it affects his job, it remains a private matter."

Despite these testimonials, Blunkett must know that the affair puts a cap on his political ambitions. Three years ago, there was serious talk of him as a potential prime minister. The launch of his book Politics and Progress, after the 2001 election, looked very like a gathering of the Stop Brown campaign, with Alan Milburn, Peter Mandelson and many others in attendance. Now, as a political realist, he must know that the public would not accept a prime minister whose personal life is as unsettled as his appears to be.

Apart from his astonishing ability to rise above social and physical handicaps, David Blunkett can expect to be remembered as a politician who began by being popular in his party, but in the end preferred to be populist, and as one of the most authoritarian home secretaries the Labour Party has yet produced.