Deborah Orr: David Blunkett is deluded if he thinks that his private life is not affecting his job

The press is to be abhorred for its sexual muckraking, but he has only himself to blame for improprieties
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The Independent Online

In fact, the relentless pursuit of Blind-Blunkett-the-Unlikely-Lothario as a figure of fun, has been intimately connected to his condition. No end of innuendo about sex and sightlessness has been traded at this man's expense. The real reason why his more grave misdemeanours have gone unnoticed is that many people have been so discomfited by Blunkett's endless public humiliation that they have been studiously looking the other way.

They are not looking the other way any longer. Just as the less prurient among us lowered their eyes in the earlier stages of the Kimberley Quinn affair, before the irregularities that led to Blunkett's eventual resignation from the government last year, so they have during this more recent long-standing soap opera.

It is Blunkett's private misfortune that he chooses his friends, his romances and his nightclubs so clumsily. The editors who concentrated on such trivia for weeks and weeks, missing the narrative that was of public interest, were the ones who were blind to anything but the scandals with which they sell papers.

And quite a narrative this one has turned out to be. Not only did a socialite couple called Tariq and Lucy Camilla Siddiqi lead Blunkett into the gold-digging embrace of a blonde estate-agent called Sally Anderson. They also, it has emerged, successfully invited Blunkett to become a non-executive director of Lucy's paternity testing firm, DNA Bioscience.

Blunkett took up the invitation, and spent two weeks on the company's board. Technically, he was not an MP at the time, as parliament had been dissolved for the last election. But it is mandatory for former ministers to consult with an advisory committee if they take up such roles within two years of leaving office. Despite being told three times that this was expected of him, Blunkett did not seek advice.

He only stayed on the board two weeks, as he was recalled to government after the election - something he must have known would happen before he took up the post. However, for the time he was on the board, he became eligible to buy shares in the company. This he did, expecting that comparatively small investment to create a £300,000 nest-egg for his sons after the company's stock-market flotation next year. He has now agreed to dispose of these shares, without making a profit, hoping that this will draw a line under the case.

But it doesn't, does it? There are many issues brought up by this sorry tale, that are not laid to rest by the ditching of a potential profit that has been flushed out by the opposition.

First there is our moralistic discomfort with the spectacle of seeing former - and future - government ministers exploiting their position for financial gain. We don't like it when they do this. We don't like it when their wives do this. We don't like it when their girlfriends do this. What Sally Anderson did in selling her "story" to the papers, was wrong, and what the newspaper did in buying it was wrong as well.

Yet what she did was not much different to the actions of Blunkett, who also used his position for profit. Former ministers do this all the time. But that doesn't make it edifying or admirable. That's why the guidelines on former ministers and directorships are being tightened up in the wake of this matter. Since most people understand that kiss 'n' tell is morally dodgy, it is not too much to expect that ministers of state should understand that serve 'n' exploit is in a similarly sleazy league. Too often, they don't.

Next, there is the commercial advantage that Blunkett's adorning of the board afforded to the company. Blunkett says he gave no advice to the company while he was a director. This seems extraordinary. Many people agree that celebrity culture, with its crass elevation of people for their gossip column profile and nothing else, is a blight of the age.

Yet, isn't this Blunkett's defence - that he was acting as just such an empty vessel, lending his name and face to the company yet offering nothing substantive. Far from admirable, surely.

And there is sheer poor taste. Blunkett and his ministers rightly condemn the press for poring over his private life. Yet it seems to me rather tasteless that after all he had been through as he sought to gain contact with his son by Mrs Quinn, he was happy to endorse a company hoping to exploit many more of these unhappy, unedifying tales.

Last but not least there is Blunkett's current work. Set aside the fact that as work and pensions secretary he presides over whether people unable to work should be able to subsist for a lifetime on the sort of cash he hoped to earn so opportunistically to give to his little lads. Concentrate instead on the fact that he is now entirely under the protection of an exasperated Blair, and seemingly grateful for it.

Last week we learned that he is at loggerheads with Blair, whose memo demanding a "radical package" to tackle incapacity benefit reads like the lunatic ravings of a decadent emperor. Such demands from the prime minister as "the naming and shaming" of the doctors giving out the most sick notes and benefits to be given "in vouchers instead of cash", do not chime well with Blunkett's own wish that the incapacitated should be "helped rather than forced" into work in a "humane shake-up".

This week, we are treated to photo-opportunities showing Blunkett clinging to Blair's arm as the prime minister pats him patronisingly and irritatedly on the back. Is Blunkett now in the position he needs to be in to win arguments with Blair? Or will his forthcoming green paper be as compromised by Blair's out-of-touch obsession with securing his legacy as Ruth Kelly's recent white paper as clearly had been? It seems unlikely to me that Blunkett will be able to survive long enough to deliver such a paper, so wounded is he.

Blunkett and his political allies may feel that this latest disaster is all the fault of the press. The hard truth is that while the press is to be abhorred for all the sexual and social muckraking it has indulged in, Blunkett has only himself to blame for these more serious improprieties that have emerged in their wake. If he clings to the idea that these are private judgements that have not affected his ability to do his job, then he is deluded too.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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