Alan Watkins: For Blair, this is a tale of ruin

What we are seeing is not so much 'Decline and Fall' as 'Bleak House'
Click to follow

In this spirit, I should like to point out that the official account of Mr Blunkett's resignation - essentially, that it was wholly voluntary, brought about by what a reactivated Mr Alastair Campbell calls a "frenzy" - does not fit the chronology. It does not make sense.

Mr Blunkett told Sky News that he went to Portcullis House, Westminster, at 9.25 on Wednesday fully expecting to give evidence to a Commons committee. He found that the committee had packed up for the day, perhaps for the duration. It then appeared that the chairman had taken this action because he had already been told that Mr Blunkett had resigned. Who had told him this is less clear.

The evidence points to a forced resignation, a dismissal, on the same lines that surrounded Mr Peter Mandelson's second departure. Certainly, in the days immediately before Wednesday, Mr Blunkett was telling anyone who would listen that he intended to stay put. He even made a rare appearance in the tea room, the traditional rialto of Labour ministers who are in trouble.

It has been said that it was Mr Blair's fault for bringing him back into the Government so soon. But this is a general failing of the Prime Minister rather than an error relating specifically to Mr Blunkett. Resignation is now regarded as a ritual propitiation of the great Emperor Paul Dacre I and his legions at the Daily Mail. Death occurs in sure and certain hope of resurrection in another ministry - usually, a slightly more junior department - within months. Once the fuss has died down, the erring brother or sister is taken back into the church.

So it was with Mr Mandelson, who, like Mr Blunkett, resigned, or was dismissed, a second time. So it was also with Mr Alan Milburn, who, admittedly in different circumstances, was in, out, in again and then out again. Estelle Morris left Education because, in her opinion (and that of others as well), she was not up to the job. She duly resurfaced in a more junior ministry, where, Mr Blair no doubt hoped, she would be up to it. She now reposes in the House of Lords. Virtually the sole former minister not to be the beneficiary of this complaisant regime is Mr Stephen Byers.

There are, it is true, pre-Blair precedents. Hugh Dalton resigned as Chancellor in 1947 after disclosing some of his Budget to a journalist on his way into the Chamber to make his speech. He was restored to the Cabinet the following year as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and later became Minister of Town and Country Planning. Cecil Parkinson resigned in 1983 for refusing to leave his wife to marry his mistress (or "lover", in modern argot). He had to wait a whole Parliament before being made Energy Secretary in 1987. Margaret Thatcher held out a half-hope that Leon Brittan would shortly be back after being made a blood sacrifice, with anti-Semitic overtones, in the Westland affair of 1986. Three years later, he was sent to Brussels, where all good politicians go when they die.

I cannot see Mr Blunkett receiving a similar benefit, though one can never tell. He will probably continue to get police protection and to be given the use of a car. Until quite recently, a former Home Secretary was given protection for life, following some outrage in Queen Victoria's reign. Today, however, the position is reviewed from time to time. Merlyn Rees, who was doubly entitled to protection, as a former Home Secretary and Northern Ireland Secretary, found the whole business irksome. But I do not think we should begrudge Mr Blunkett the odd policeman hanging around the place, if that is what he wants. The foolish fellow will receive few other consolations.

Mr Blair is indirectly responsible for what has happened, not only because he brought Mr Blunkett back so soon and so arrogantly, having his henchmen brief the lobby to this effect once the first resignation had come about. He is responsible also because Mr Blunkett simply followed the practices current in the present administration. A New York ne'er-do-well called Leona Helmsley once gave her view that "only the little people pay taxes". She duly went to prison for tax evasion. Today, likewise, Mr Blair and his ministers think that only the little people have to obey the rules.

Nothing surprised me more about Lord Hutton's report than the way in which he accepted without question a state of affairs whereby Mr Campbell, a press officer, was chairing a committee of experts in defence and security and, moreover, was issuing instructions to them. Mr Campbell's expertise lies in cheap journalism. Not that there is anything wrong with that: I have written political columns for both the Sunday Express and the Sunday Mirror and am not ashamed - in fact, I am quite proud - of the work I did there. What such work does not, however, give anyone is a knowledge of defence and security arrangements in the Middle East, or anywhere else for that matter.

Several of our Prime Ministers besides Mr Blair have had an aversion to doing things in an orderly and formal manner. Winston Churchill, however, liked to get decisions down on paper. The nearest to Mr Blair in informality, in government by sofa, was perhaps David Lloyd George. He won a war, lost both his original party and the party that had temporarily adopted him, and was pushed out of Downing Street after nearly six years, never to hold office again. Mr Blair has already done better than that in terms of longevity. But we are seeing a gradual erosion of support on the back benches and in the Cabinet. What we are looking at is not so much The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as Bleak House. Certainly, Dickens would have had no difficulty whatever in fitting in the dreaded Hazel Blears somewhere.

Comments