Praise for Blunkett seen as signal of quick return to the Cabinet

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Tony Blair signalled a rapid return to the Cabinet for David Blunkett yesterday, as he praised the "real integrity" of his former Home Secretary.

Tony Blair signalled a rapid return to the Cabinet for David Blunkett yesterday, as he praised the "real integrity" of his former Home Secretary.

Mr Blunkett resigned last month when an investigation discovered that a visa application by his former lover's nanny had been "fast-tracked" after the Home Office intervened.

The Prime Minister said he stood by his statement that Mr Blunkett had left office "without a stain on his character". He said: "I know David very well and I believe him to be a man of real integrity and real ability, and I was very sad for him as to what happened."

Asked on Radio 4's Today programme if he hoped Mr Blunkett would make a comeback, Mr Blair said: "I certainly hope he will at some point ... I'm not making any guarantees ... You can never tell what happens in politics, but I think he is someone with an immense amount to give to the country."

The Prime Minister pointed out that Mr Blunkett had set up the Budd inquiry which led to his resignation, and added: "I think people do actually understand that he was trying to do the right thing."

His strong language makes it clear that the former Home Secretary, who had been in the Cabinet since Labour's election landslide of May 1997, still features in his plans. At the time of his resignation, Mr Blunkett suggested that he hoped to return to public office, saying: "I think I have contributed, along with colleagues, to changing the world, and I'm going to carry on trying to do that."

Mr Blunkett is expected to concentrate on his Sheffield Brightside constituency in the election, although there have been suggestions that he might take a wider campaigning role.

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, said: "Mr Blunkett's conduct was found wanting on this occasion, and it was very serious because it involved the process of government.

"So I was surprised at what Mr Blair said - perhaps I shouldn't have been, given the history of other people who've resigned in disgrace from this Government and have been brought back."

Dominic Grieve, the shadow Attorney General, criticised the Prime Minister for maintaining that his minister was blameless. "In fact he had done something wrong. The way the office had been operated was frankly scandalous. While I don't rule out the possibility that Mr Blunkett may return as a minister, I don't think it's something that can simply be brushed under the carpet," Mr Grieve said.

Ian Gibson, the left-wing MP for Norwich North, said there was a question-mark over whether Mr Blunkett could return to the Cabinet.

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