The end of the affair

The PM can't have wanted him to go, but he is no sentimentalist. It's not a problem, but an opportunity
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The Independent Online

David Blunkett's resignation has been "hugely damaging" to Tony Blair. It must be true because the BBC said so. The corporation does not have an editorial opinion, so this must have been a fact, brought to citizen-licence-payers via all public service outlets, so that we can better cast our votes at the general election from a position of informed civic awareness.

Strangely, though, most BBC reports omitted the supporting evidence for the "fact" that the Prime Minister's own resignation was now more imminent than ever as a result of Blunkett's departure. One or two of the corporation's many political reporters offered the information that the former Home Secretary had been "pivotal" to Blair's strategy for the general election. He and the Prime Minister were "very close", personally and politically, and the PM had staked his reputation on Blunkett's survival.

How, then, does the BBC account for the findings of today's Independent on Sunday opinion poll which suggests that Blunkett's resignation has had no negative effect on the Government's standing and may even have strengthened it? That's the trouble with licence-payers: they just won't listen to the impartial truth about what a heel Blair is.

"Due impartiality lies at the heart of the BBC," according to the BBC rule book, Producers' Guidelines. That will be why Huw Edwards described the new Cabinet as "hastily reshuffled". What does that mean? Blair has known that he might have to reshuffle his Cabinet for two weeks now; he had obviously thought about it; and it was done in a calm and orderly way, which it is not always. Either this was a lazy attempt to inject an element of drama into the story or it was simple bias, giving an impression of a government in disarray.

The Producers' Guidelines also say: "No significant strand of thought should go unreflected or under-represented on the BBC." Well, one significant strand of thought, with equal right to be reported as fact, went unreflected on the BBC last week. Namely that Blunkett's resignation has strengthened Blair and his Government.

In fact, it went pretty much unreflected anywhere else too, which is usually one of the BBC's defences. When it comes to Blair-bashing, the BBC can always hide behind the more strident voices of the vigorously partisan British press. In the columns of the Daily Mail, for example, the Blair obituarists were pronouncing the last rites again. "The Death Knell for Blairism," intoned Max Hastings, setting out why Blunkett's departure signals the end.

The Conservative press and the Conservative opposition have seized excitedly on two things Blair said in an attempt to implicate him in an alleged attempt to cover up Blunkett's nefarious deeds. When Blunkett asked for an independent review of the claim that he had fast-tracked the application for leave to remain in the UK for Kimberly Quinn's nanny, Blair said: "I have no doubt he will be exonerated." The BBC joined in the synthetic fuss at the time about the Prime Minister "prejudging" Sir Alan Budd's inquiry. But it is difficult to see what was wrong with it: prime ministers always express absolute confidence in their ministers until they, er, don't.

Then there was the phrase with which Blair ended his reply to Blunkett's letter of resignation: "You leave Government with your integrity intact." Cue artificial outrage about the fact that we do not yet know exactly what Sir Alan will accuse Blunkett of having done. Let us make some allowance here for Blair's basic politeness, and also for the fact that the integrity of a minister who admits to having done something that looks wrong and resigns is more intact than that of one who does the same and clings to office.

All that, then, is a tedious distraction from the substantive question of whether the Blair Government is strengthened or weakened by Blunkett's departure. I say it is strengthened. David Blunkett has been a towering figure in Labour politics for 20 years, who stands comparison with the names of Bevin, Bevan, Castle and Jenkins of Labour governments past. But he has completed a whole parliamentary term as Education Secretary and nearly a whole term as Home Secretary. He has achieved most of what he wanted to in both offices and there was no other "great office of state" that appeared open to him after the election.

And staying at the Home Office was subject to the law of diminishing returns. His departure is very sad and possibly unfair, but it is easy to see how it conforms to the dictum of Alastair Campbell, Blair's former press secretary: "It's not a problem, it's an opportunity." One of Blunkett's assets, his blunt speaking, was also a liability. The relish with which he liked to annoy right-thinking liberal opinion was not absolutely necessary to his undoubted rapport with the punitive and authoritarian instincts of middle England.

Given that Blair is already up against it with right-thinking liberals over the Iraq war, it might be prudent if he could be a little more emollient about their mostly justified worries about identity cards, juries and detention without trial. So along comes Charles Clarke, as much of an intellectual bruiser as Blunkett, but with not quite the same abrasive, provocative edge. Clarke is a social conservative who understands the Blairite imperative of using the Home Office to keep the Tory party triangulated more or less out of existence. But he is a subtle politician who did a remarkable job at Education of sounding conservative while actually keeping the liberal educational establishment remarkably happy.

Indeed, he was so good at the second part that one of the other advantages of the reshuffle from Blair's point of view is that he can bring in Ruth Kelly who may press ahead with the radical reforms that the Prime Minister wants. One of the things in Stephen Pollard's biography that weakened Blunkett was his attack on Clarke for taking his "foot off the accelerator".

But what Blair wants right now is someone to do just that while appearing not to at the Home Office, to try to keep the Labour Party on side in the election campaign.

The third advantage of the reshuffle is that David Miliband, Blair's former head of policy, takes a grip of the manifesto as Alan Milburn's deputy. A fourth is that three other young Blairites, Stephen Twigg, Derek Twigg and James Purnell, can be promoted. And a fifth is that Blair puts another woman in the Cabinet, who is young and able.

The reshuffle provides just the rebalancing and renewing of the Labour team that is needed as the election approaches. With six women in the Cabinet, the Government looks like Britain, and, with several young, clever ministers waiting just outside the Cabinet door, it looks as if it has plenty of life left in it.

The contrast with the Conservatives is so painful that it can only worsen the angst behind the scenes at Central Office, which the sackings and muffled thuds betray.

The Prime Minister cannot have wanted Blunkett to go, but he is no sentimentalist. He knows that the reality is the opposite of what the BBC reported: that the Home Secretary's departure is an opportunity to refresh and strengthen the Government.