The Week in Politics: Resignation makes way for new generation

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The Independent Online

"Why on earth did he have to go?," one of the Blairite ministers promoted after David Blunkett's resignation asked me as he shook his head in disbelief. "I still don't understand it. It's devastating for him and terrible for the Government."

"Why on earth did he have to go?," one of the Blairite ministers promoted after David Blunkett's resignation asked me as he shook his head in disbelief. "I still don't understand it. It's devastating for him and terrible for the Government."

Three days after the most dramatic resignation since Tony Blair came to power, traumatised ministers are still analysing all the moves and action replays as if England had just lost a World Cup final on penalties. Some allies of the fallen Home Secretary are convinced he made a mistake by setting up Sir Alan Budd's investigation into allegations that he fast-tracked a residence visa application by the nanny of his former lover Kimberly Quinn.

Ministers are realising that inquiries may buy time in a crisis but can boomerang with a vengeance. Lord Hutton's investigation into the death of David Kelly was counterproductive because it was widely seen as a whitewash. Lord Butler of Brockwell's look at the intelligence failures on Iraq had more bite than most expected. We will have to wait a couple of days before we know Sir Alan's findings, but his investigation has already claimed the scalp of the man who ordered it.

Mr Blunkett may not be the only victim. Some serious questions have emerged about whether there was an attempt to cover up the former Home Secretary's role in the handling of the visa application. Was there a cover up? Did officials, as well as Mr Blunkett, forget his involvement?

Did the real story emerge because media revelations during the inquiry contradicted the Home Office's version of events? Some officials may be feeling nervous this weekend. According to some friends, Mr Blunkett could have avoided an investigation by going on television to admit he may have cited the nanny's case when demanding a wider fast-tracking system for all claimants and attributing this minor indiscretion on his love for Mrs Quinn. True, his stock was much higher when the allegation was made three weeks ago, not least among his cabinet colleagues not yet aware of the candid criticisms he had made of them in interviews with his biographer Stephen Pollard.

I suspect, however, that an inquiry was inevitable. Media pressure would have forced Mr Blair to order one, so it was better to do it as soon as the bitter battle raging in Mr Blunkett's private life impacted on his public duties.

With hindsight, a better course would have been for Mr Blunkett to take compassionate leave once he realised Mrs Quinn was waging a media campaign against him.

Giving Mr Blunkett time off to resolve his court action for access to Mrs Quinn's son, who he claims he fathered, would have made sense to the wider world. But it was alien to the workaholic world at Westminster, where ministers regularly work 16 hours a day. "It would have looked as though he couldn't do his job," one cabinet minister explained. Wiser heads at Westminster disagree.

Where does Mr Blunkett's departure leave the Government? It has undoubtedly weakened Mr Blair's position. He did not want to lose such a loyal, pivotal figure in the election run-up and the resignation raises questions about Mr Blair's judgement in backing him so forcefully. But, in my view, it does not necessarily mean the beginning of the end of the Blair era, as some MPs and commentators believe.

Mr Blair's response to the crisis reveals quite a lot about his mindset. In the ensuing reshuffle, he promoted Blairites and saw no need to appease Gordon Brown by rewarding any of his followers, as he has done in the past. Nor, I suspect, was the Chancellor consulted about the changes this time.

In his remaining time as Prime Minister, Mr Blair is determined to pull all the levers himself and will no longer allow his Chancellor to tie his hands. According to close aides, that means he will use his power of patronage to the full, which should make for an interesting reshuffle if he wins a third term. I am not saying Mr Blair will try to move Mr Brown from the Treasury, even though some Blairites are, for the umpteenth time, promoting the provocative idea of dispatching him to the Foreign Office.

I suspect the Prime Minister intends to use a post-election shake-up to bring on more Young Turks in the hope of entrenching "Blairism" before he departs the stage. He began the process this week by promoting Ruth Kelly, David Miliband, Stephen Twigg and James Purnell in a reshuffle that was portrayed by the Blairites, with apologies to Star Trek, as "Blair: the Next Generation."

The Brown camp was dismayed by what it called the "aggressive and divisive briefing" that accompanied the ministerial changes.

To the Chancellor, the reshuffle looked more like another film, Star Wars Episode II - Attack of the Clones.

The most significant move was not Charles Clarke's transfer to the Home Office but Mr Miliband's switch to the heart of the Blair machine as Alan Milburn's deputy at the Cabinet Office.

The Chancellor's allies fear the Milburn-Miliband alliance will draft a manifesto containing a new wave of ill-thought out reforms that Mr Brown would not want to inherit during the next Parliament, when he looks odds-on to succeed Mr Blair, despite the fast-tracking of the Blairites in the past week. However, the most abiding image of the week was not the Young Blairite Turks but the tearful, farewell interviews given by an emotionally and physically exhausted Mr Blunkett. I hope he is on an extended period of compassionate leave rather than in permanent exile. Sir Alan's report may well decide which it is to be.

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