The Week in Politics: Why Blair keeps faith with his Home Secretary

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The Independent Online

When Tony Blair formed his Cabinet after the last general election, his top priority was to crack the intractable problem of public service reform. He put four loyal Blairites in charge of key departments and, to ensure continuity, told them they would stay there until the next election.

When Tony Blair formed his Cabinet after the last general election, his top priority was to crack the intractable problem of public service reform. He put four loyal Blairites in charge of key departments and, to ensure continuity, told them they would stay there until the next election.

But Stephen Byers was driven out of the Department for Transport, Estelle Morris failed her test at Education and Alan Milburn decided his family was more important than the Health department. The last man still standing in the same post? You guessed it: David Blunkett at the Home Office.

As Mr Blunkett fights desperately for his political life, the Prime Minister might be reflecting on his dinner with the four ministers in 2001. If he loses Mr Blunkett, it would leave him with a messy record as a man-manager. "Don't waste your second term like I did," Bill Clinton told Mr Blair.

But the ministerial merry-go-round, reshuffles which backfired last year and this, the permanent dark cloud of Iraq and the limited progress on public services, suggest that Mr Blair has failed to learn Mr Clinton's lesson. It also explains why he wants a third term.

Mr Blair will not hear a bad word about Mr Blunkett and is determined to hold on to him. He could be replaced as Home Secretary (my money would be on Charles Clarke) but a minister who is regarded as loyal, and a deliverer, would be sorely missed by Mr Blair.

I suspect most other ministers, if they were in Mr Blunkett's position, might have been asked to "stand down temporarily" by now, especially after yesterday's High Court case in which the Home Secretary sought access to the two-year-old son of his former lover Kimberly Quinn whom he claims he fathered.

Mr Blair's declaration that he "was in no doubt he will be exonerated" came close to prejudging the investigation into whether the Home Secretary fast-tracked a visa application by Kimberly Quinn's nanny.

The Government does not have a record to be proud of on official inquiries. It uses them to end damaging controversies, buy time and refuse to answer difficult questions. The terms of reference are usually tightly drawn. Mr Blair claims there have been four inquiries into Iraq, but they have been piecemeal and pale into insignificance when compared to those in the United States.

When Sky News reported last Sunday that the Home Office was to set up an inquiry into Mr Blunkett, my 19-year-old son laughed. "He is the Home Office," he said. "How can he have an inquiry into himself?"

I said the investigation would be made by an independent figure. But as the remarkable saga unfolded, I realised my son was right. John Gieve, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, set up the inquiry and appointed Sir Alan Budd as chairman.

There is speculation that the visa application may even have crossed Mr Gieve's desk. Will he be called to give evidence to an inquiry he set up? And why did Sir Alan's brief not include the allegations that Mr Blunkett used civil servants in his acrimonious battle with Mrs Quinn?

The Government should appoint a permanent independent watchdog for ministers, who would consider complaints, launch his own inquiries and fix the terms of reference. There is already one for MPs, so why not ministers? Mr Blair has accepted such investigations should no longer be done by the Cabinet Secretary. He has also promised an independent ethics adviser on ministers' financial interests, whose remit could easily be widened.

But I have seen nothing to justify Mr Blunkett's resignation and I think it wrong for people who do not like his policies to use his personal crisis to hound him out of office. When the media pack scents a minister's blood, it is a sport played without rules and usually ends with a scalp.

Some newspapers say a minister cannot do his job because of the media frenzy, a self-fulfilling prophecy, the game that allows them to take revenge on Labour for its news management and do the job of a feeble opposition for it.

Mr Blunkett's blindness since birth has forced him to be a good juggler in his highly demanding job. I do not know if Mr Blunkett has acted in the best interests of the two-year-old boy since Mrs Quinn ended their relationship. But I can say he is one of the more scrupulous politicians I have met in my Westminster world, where scruples often take a back seat. And if Mrs Quinn had agreed to his repeated requests to marry him, he would be in a similar position to Michael Howard and Robin Cook. No one talks about their private lives now.

Not all of Mr Blair's ministers really believe in his mantra that people have responsibilities to society as well as rights. It would be a terrible irony if Mr Blunkett, a true believer, decides he must put his personal responsibilities before his right to remain in office.

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