Special report: Well that's another fine mess we've walked into, Sadie

Will his 'weak', 'soft' and 'panic'-prone colleagues help him in his hour of need? Andy McSmith reports
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Lesser cabinet ministers have been blown away by a few days of bad headlines, but David Blunkett is still there, combative and unrepentant, after a fortnight as one of the nation's favourite talking points. He may yet be the exception to the rule, attributed to Alastair Campbell, that 14 days of bad publicity means that you're out.

Sir Alan Budd, the former Treasury adviser who is investigating how Mr Blunkett's former lover's former nanny was granted the right to reside in the UK has said that he will report in "weeks, rather than months". This may mean that we will hear from him before Christmas.

Meanwhile the Home Secretary has gratuitously added to his problems by saying bluntly what he thinks of his fellow ministers. The world outside may not see this as a hanging matter, but Downing Street sees it as a bigger problem now than anything connected with the unhappy break up between Mr Blunkett and Kimberly Quinn.

In the next few weeks the Home Secretary will have to steer legislation through the Commons to introduce compulsory identity cards. Equally controversially, he will be asking for another year's extension of the powers that allow him to keep foreign terrorist suspects locked up in Belmarsh prison without trial. In these choppy waters, he will need solid backing from fellow cabinet ministers, which he has recklessly put at risk.

It was in the middle of an intense behind-the-scenes battle over ID cards, late last year, when the Home Secretary invited a friendly journalist into his office for an hour-long, tape-recorded chat. This was Stephen Pollard, whose biography of Mr Blunkett has been rushed out ahead of schedule to cash in on the sudden interest in the Home Secretary's life. One of his advisers has since said that Mr Blunkett was "like a bear with a sore head" on the day in question, and vented his spleen on absent colleagues.

Well, perhaps. An alternative explanation is that he was riding high, winning his internal battle over ID cards and enjoying a passionate affair with an attractive woman. Ministerial rules do not allow cabinet ministers to write about what goes on in government, but there was nothing to stop him putting his views on the record by talking into a tape recorder for the benefit of his biographer.

Last Tuesday, everything he said was served up in the Daily Mail, which bought the rights to Pollard's book. There, in cold print, were Mr Blunkett's thoughts on the grumpiness of John Prescott, the deviousness of Jack Straw, and much else. His office admits that the quotes are accurate.

It was a gift to the Home Secretary's political enemies, and produced one of the funniest exchanges at Prime Minister's Questions for a very long time. As Michael Howard gleefully summarised Mr Blunkett's remarks to a crowded Commons, even the normally hatchet-faced government advisers lapsed into involuntary laughter.

"I shall tell the Prime Minister what his Home Secretary thinks about the current Foreign Secretary's time at the Home Office," Mr Howard announced in that famous lawyer's whine. "He says: 'It was worse than any of us had imagined possible. God alone knows what Jack did for four years. I am simply unable to comprehend how he could have left it as it was. It was a giant mess.'

"He does not stop there. He thinks that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport [Tessa Jowell] is weak; the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry [Patricia Hewitt] does not think strategically; and the Secretary of State for Education and Skills [Charles Clarke] has not developed as expected.

"He also says that the Prime Minister does not like being told the truth and - as no doubt the Prime Minister will agree - that the Chancellor [Gordon Brown] is a bully. Could the Prime Minister please arrange for the Home Secretary to make regular reports on his cabinet colleagues and place them in the library?"

At the mention of the word "bully", Mr Blunkett - sitting uncomfortably next but one to the Prime Minister - threw an arm across Gordon Brown's shoulders. Tory MPs were crying out for more, but Tony Blair began a surprisingly good-humoured reply by saying: "I think that we have had quite enough."

To be fair, Mr Blunkett is nowhere quoted as calling Gordon Brown a "bully" - though he did say that "Gordon only respects people who stand up to him". Far from being offended, the Chancellor is giving Mr Blunkett his unqualified support. Nor did Mr Blunkett accuse Jack Straw of leaving a "giant mess" when he left the Home Office in 2001. That remark is attributed to an "adviser".

Mr Blunkett also dished out compliments. Though he remarked that Ms Jowell was "weak" in her handling of pub opening hours, he praised her overall record. He spoke highly of Alan Milburn, of the Secretary of State for Health, John Reid, and the Northern Ireland Secretary, Paul Murphy, while Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, was visibly chuffed that Mr Blunkett had said, "if there's anyone who upsets colleagues more than I do, it's Peter". When he was teased about this by the Tories, Mr Hain replied: "I got off very lightly."

Mr Blunkett was equally free in his comments about former cabinet ministers who are still in Parliament. He was scathing about Robin Cook's demeanour as Foreign Secretary, implying that he was "pompous". He was also dismissive of his successor at Education, Estelle Morris, and of the former chief whip Ann Taylor, but fulsome in his praise for Stephen Byers.

He has also offended civil servants in the Home Office with his scathing comments about "incompetence and inefficiency". He said: "I've never experienced anything quite like the first few months here. We were running parallel policies. There were my policies and there was what officials called Home Office policy, and that was what they worked to."

Charles Clarke is said to be "good-humoured" about being accused of having "gone soft" and shying away from controversy. Even so, Mr Clarke thinks that the attack was damaging and unjust, given that he faced down one of the biggest parliamentary rebellions of the Blair years, over student tuition fees.

Mrs Hewitt was certainly not amused by what she saw as tantamount to a downright lie. Mr Blunkett claimed she almost let local chemist's shops be wiped out by bureaucrats in the Competition Commission. Her office has said this was "exactly the opposite of the truth".

Mr Blunkett also bluntly revealed how sensitive John Prescott is to his nickname "Two Jags." As one insider commented: "If there is one person you don't need to fall out with, it's JP, because he can make so much trouble for you when you're trying to get legislation through."

The biggest problem that Mr Blunkett has made for himself is through his attack on Mr Straw's conduct as Foreign Secretary. This broke a golden rule of cabinet government, that ministers do not go public over their private rows over policy.

Mr Blunkett claimed that earlier this year, as the deadline approached for 10 countries to join the European Union, Mr Straw suddenly went into a "terrible panic" over the Government's promise that the new EU citizens would be free to enter the UK to look for work.

"This is actually a Foreign Office problem but the Foreign Office have done absolutely nothing. So Jack's just intervened at the very last minute and we've got his spanner in the works," Mr Blunkett said. He went on to accuse the Foreign Secretary of whispering "garbage" in the Prime Minister's ear.

In Mr Blunkett's mind, the best form of border control is to introduce ID cards, but he had to fight for that legislation against spirited opposition from Mr Straw. Mr Blunkett evidently suspected that Mr Straw was doing this opportunistically, at a time when Mr Blair was weakened.

He said: "You can take two points of view. One is that he discovered after all this time that ID cards are an outrage. Or you can take the view that he's wanted to distance himself a little from Tony, and to address a domestic agenda item that would give him some kudos. You pays your money and you takes your choice."

He does not even have the excuse that all this was said when he was in a bad temper, because it was said on a different day, in a separate interview. One Downing Street adviser said: "People know that these arguments go on, but you never hear a cabinet minister talking about them publicly. This is a bigger problem than anything to do with his private life."

Officially, Mr Blunkett's future hangs on the findings of Sir Alan Budd, who will no doubt contain some mild criticism of the Home Secretary to avoid the accusation of a whitewash. But he is not expected to convict Mr Blunkett outright of abusing his office. What happens next will therefore depend on political factors, such as public opinion, what the Prime Minister wants, and what the rest of the Cabinet thinks.

The Prime Minister staked his position by travelling to Sheffield, Mr Blunkett's home town, to pay a gushing tribute there to his handling of the issue of yobbish behaviour. Mr Blair will have been influenced by a poll last week in The Times, suggesting that the public does not think the affair with Mrs Quinn is a resigning matter.

But after the public tributes, the Prime Minister is said to have spoken privately to his Home Secretary, whom he likes and respects, to rebuke him for tearing open the façade of cabinet unity. If Mr Blunkett does not mend his relations with his other colleagues, he may find that the next time he is trouble, some of the big players in the political game will not feel they need lift a finger to help him.

FOR

TESSA JOWELL

Blunkett said: "It's difficult if you're in a junior department, you don't have the weight. I thought she was weak over the Licensing Bill but overall she's grown into the job." They are old friends.

PETER HAIN

Blunkett said: "There are people who are quite brave and think radically like Peter Hain, but if there's anybody who upsets colleagues more than I do, it's Peter." Hain is flattered and pleased.

PAUL MURPHY

Blunkett said: "There are people who don't say a lot but actually are quite decent ministers like Paul Murphy." This is a general view. He will be quietly pleased to have had this pointed out.

ALAN MILBURN

Blunkett said: "I thought Alan Milburn had very substantially grown in competence and authority. You could trust him." Milburn has been very public in his support during the current crisis.

TONY BLAIR

Blunkett said: "I've said to him on two or three occasions, 'Your best friends are the ones who tell you what you don't want to hear.' He's tolerated more from Gordon than he ought to." Blair described Blunkett as "outstanding".

AGAINST

JACK STRAW

Blunkett said that as EU expansion approached in May: "Jack went into hysterical mode. He started making dramatic predictions of what would happen." Straw is "white with anger" about this and other scathing comments.

CHARLES CLARKE

Blunkett said of the Education department: "They've gone soft. They've produced documents called 'Excellence' and 'Enjoyment'. The next one will be called 'Smiley and Fun'." Clarke is said to be 'good-humoured' about this.

JOHN PRESCOTT

Blunkett said: "He doesn't like that I do what he is good at himself: saying it as it is. And he dislikes the fact that I get on well with the right-wing press because he gets on with them so badly." Prescott's reaction has been called "grumpy".

GORDON BROWN

Blunkett said: "I had to take Gordon on quite strongly in the early days because he was throwing his weight around and he pretty well quietened everybody else." Brown's office says the Chancellor is not at all offended.

PATRICIA HEWITT

Blunkett said: "I don't think she thinks strategically. She nearly let the Competition Commission demolish local chemists." Hewitt's reaction was: "This is exactly the opposite of the truth."

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