Pint-sized assassin with Brown in her sights
Hazel Blears was a loyal team player until her attack on the PM's YouTube appearance
Thursday 04 June 2009
The first time the public saw Hazel Blears, she was running around Salford looking like a street urchin. She was five years old, and had been cast as an extra in the 1961 film A Taste of Honey, set in her native town.
Yesterday, it was not so much the street urchin as the street fighter that was on display as the pepper pot-sized minister dealt a blow to Gordon Brown's premiership by announcing her resignation on the eve of a nationwide election.
The blow was all the more startling because until recently she had been such a loyal team player. From the moment that she arrived in the Commons as MP for Salford in 1997, after practising as a solicitor in her home town, she distinguished herself as a "Blair babe", loyal to the leader through good times and bad.
Within a year, she was a parliamentary aide to Alan Milburn, another Blairite. She moved into government as a junior health minister in June 2001, and became a middle-ranking minister, responsible for public health, in 2002. In June 2003, she moved to the Home Office to handle crime and counter-terrorism. Mr Blair brought her into the Cabinet in his last reshuffle, in May 2006, when he put her in charge of the party machine, as minister without portfolio.
When Mr Brown became Prime Minister, she was given a government department to run for the first time, as Secretary for Communities and Local Government. The post suited her because she had a Blairite obsession with getting local amenities like parks and swimming pools out of the control of local councils and run by residents.
Her future seemed assured until a month ago, when in a departure from her normal buttoned-down loyalty, she mocked Mr Brown's attempt to use YouTube to get over his message on MPs' expenses. The point she was making, in a Sunday newspaper, was a sensible one – that Labour should not become so obsessed with modern methods of communication that they ignored old-fashioned door-to-door canvassing – and she seemed genuinely surprised by the reaction to it. But the phrase she used, "YouTube if you want to", was too catchy to pass unnoticed, and added to the embarrassment caused by Brown's ill-judged foray into youth culture. The phrase certainly irritated the Prime Minister, never one to enjoy a joke at his own expense.
Within days, Hazel Blears was in deep water, when The Daily Telegraph revealed that she had told the Commons office that her main residence was in Salford, allowing her to claim for her flat in Kennington, south London. But when she sold that flat, she told the tax authorities that it was her main residence, so avoiding capital gains tax. When asked about it, the Prime Minister called it "totally unacceptable". It was as if he had decided that one memorable phrase deserved another.
After disavowing one of his ministers so bluntly, the obvious course would have been for the Prime Minister to sack her. But he left her in office. It was rumoured that he regretted what he had said. Perhaps Ms Blears was hoping to hear him say "sorry", or something like it, when she spoke to him on Tuesday afternoon – but the expression of regret never came, and Ms Blears decided that she had had enough.
Resignation: The letters
Dear Prime Minister
For some time I have been considering my future contribution to public life, and I have decided to resign from the Government. I am proud of my service to the Labour Government over the past eight years and what we together have achieved for the people of our country. I have worked hard to turn Labour's values into practical policies which benefit hard-working families. I remain convinced that Britain is better served by Labour than any of the alternatives and will work tirelessly to see it elected at the next general election. I've never sought high office for the sake of it, or for what I can gain, but for what I can achieve for the people I represent and serve. In this next phase of my political life I am... returning to the grassroots (where I began), to political activism, and to the cut and thrust of political debate. Most of all I want to help you and the Labour Party to reconnect with the British people, to remind them that our values are their values, that their hopes and dreams are ours too, and to expose the policies of the Conservatives.
Thank you for letting me know you have decided to resign. You have served this Government with distinction. Your work has been tireless and helped deliver significant and lasting reforms. As Home Office minister, you took forward important work on police reform and initiatives to tackle violent crime and alcohol-related disorder. You led work to strengthen Britain's response to the threat of international terrorism.
As Communities Secretary you have driven forward the community empowerment agenda, so local people are able to shape services to meet their needs. You have implemented major structural reform of local government. And you have taken forward important work to enhance community cohesion.
I know you will continue to use your energy and commitment to support the Government from the back benches. I am grateful for all of your work, wish you and your husband Michael well for the future, and hope it will not be long before you can return to Government.
An intended message? Blears' brooch
The resignation letter was a formality. But as Hazel Blears left her office, the brooch she inadvertently paraded carried a more telling message. Emblazoned with the words "rocking the boat", it showed a ship on stormy seas, carrying undertones of upset and sabotage.
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