Donald Macintyre: Mr Blunkett may be battered but he is not bruised

'Neither myth - The Man Who Can Do No Wrong nor The Man Who is Doing Too Much - works'
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The Independent Online

Here are two David Blunkett myths, both of which have surfaced in quick succession in recent weeks. The first is that of the Home Secretary Who Can Do No Wrong, Man of the Moment and "obvious" and probably successful Tony Blair-backed challenger to supposedly faltering Gordon Brown in a future Labour leadership election.

The second is poor old imploding Blunkett, a Man Who is Doing Too Much, and not only culpable for a ham-fisted intervention in the post-mortem on the summer riots, but also trounced by the liberals in a series of humiliating defeats of key clauses in his Anti-Terrorism Bill. A seriously bad week, in other words.

Both are two-dimensional caricatures, neither doing justice to a complex and perpetually interesting politician. Anyone who tries to write off at this stage the eventual leadership chances of Gordon Brown needs their head read. And so does anyone who assumes that a politician heading a department as difficult and multi-faceted as the Home Office – which has, incidentally, furnished, in Winston Churchill and James Callaghan, only two Prime Ministers in the last 60 years – is going to have a smooth ride.

The Man Who is Doing Too Much doesn't quite work either. There is very little that Mr Blunkett has addressed since the election that he could, in all conscience, have avoided. The timing of his epic policy shift on cannabis – which made him as much as a darling of liberals as parts of the Anti-Terrorism Bill have enraged them – wasn't of his choosing. Chris Mullin's Home Affairs Select Committee decided on it as its first investigation and summoned him to testify. Reform of the police was in the Queen's Speech and is woefully overdue. That legislation on terrorism was necessary after 11 September is not in doubt. And if he hadn't done something on the riots, he would have been rightly condemned for his inaction.

The issue of what he said about them is naturally debatable. On the one hand, he almost certainly started a debate whose time has come. On the other hand, by stressing – rightly – the obnoxious nature of forced marriages, he may have understated the extent to which they also offend the large majority of Britons of Asian extraction. He may, too, have understated the extent to which British whites are primarily to blame for their historic failure to treat those in ethnic minorities as fellow citizens. But it is certainly a matter of wonder that we are all – white as well as black and brown – less good than, say, Americans in rejoicing in our shared nationality; and that is worth talking about.

But it's the handling of the Anti-Terrorism Bill that has got Mr Blunkett's critics most excited. He went too far, they say, and has now paid the price by having to make a number of last-minute concessions to save his Bill – and his face.

Not so fast. This rather underestimates Blunkett's sophistication and canniness as a politician. Whatever the rights and wrongs – and there is a strong argument that parts of the Bill (especially the removal from the scope of judicial review the detention of suspects without trial) were unnecessarily draconian – it is worth taking a rather cooler look at what he got through.

True, he had to drop the clauses creating a new offence of incitement to religious hatred. He wanted them in but almost certainly realised that, as they were not central to the fight against terrorism, he might have to drop them. It was worth a try, because there was always a chance that, in the wake of 11 September, liberals – with a capital as well as a small "L" – would judge that, with British Muslims feeling increasingly beleaguered, their time had come. Moreover he may get quite a lot of credit among Muslims for trying.

Otherwise, the plain fact is that he preserved exactly those four parts of the Bill that, publicly and privately, he had made clear he would not surrender, even if it resulted in the Bill going down. That his opponents in the Lords agreed to compromise on a fairly modest improvement to the judicial status of the special immigration appeals commission is regrettable – though faced with the alternative of being blamed for ditching a Bill with broad popular support, they may have had little choice. But as a result, Blunkett maintained his objective of cutting out judicial review for such cases.

Similarly, he preserved the extension of police powers on matters of identification and of the remit for the MoD and transport police. He preserved intact his refusal to draw a distinction between terrorism and the wider types of organised crime often used to finance terrorism. And he successfully resisted a wide-ranging "sunset clause" that would have required him to introduce the legislation again in a couple of years.

On Thursday night, he disarmingly confessed that he had marched his troops to the top of the hill and marched them down again. He also built trust with his Tory shadow, Oliver Letwin, who further enhanced his reputation during the Bill's passage.

But this should not disguise the extent to which Mr Blunkett kept in the Bill all that mattered most to him. It is hard to escape the conclusion that he deliberately built in some elements to his original Bill that his opponents would then strike out in order to preserve its basic principles intact. You may not like every aspect of the outcome; but history may judge that by his own – and, no doubt, Tony Blair's – light, so far from having a bad week, Mr Blunkett has had a very good one.

d.mcintyre@independent.co.uk

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