Matthew Norman: The delusions and self-pity of David Blunkett

He mutated into one of the more grotesque hypocrites even this government has produced
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Of all the myriad words printed this week from The Blunkett Tapes, the new effort from our former Home Secretary, it was the very first paragraph of the Daily Mail's serialisation that offered arguably the most insightful vignette.

"The Sunday evening of the News of the World story," recalls Mr Blunkett of the August 2004 day on which his affair with Kimberly Quinn became public. "Tony, who himself was on holiday in Tuscany, was extremely understanding and helpful. He and Cherie invited me to join them for supper at the villa of their friends, the Strozzis, near San Gimignano."

Ah yes, the Strozzis. Until being supplanted by Cliff Richard, Prince Girolamo Strozzi held the key constitutional position of Chief Purveyor of Free Luxury Holiday Accommodation to the Blairs. In considering his subsequent downfall, the whisking of Mr Blunkett across the Tuscan countryside by Italian security for a doubtless magnificent dinner in the courtyard of a renaissance palazzo seems instructive.

When Mr Blunkett later took the directorship of and shares in a bioscience firm that led to his second sacking, can you really blame him for the failure of his once acute antennae? After all, he had noted at first hand how the Blairs accepted gifts like well deserved perks of power, and had shared in the splendour himself. It must have seemed perfectly natural, then, when he clung on to his taxpayer-funded residences for the months between his two ministerial stints, and hoovered up shares potentially worth millions in a firm to which (as he may well have known) he would soon have the power to award government contracts at the Department of Work and Pensions.

So central to the Blairs' time in Number 10 have been the reverence for wealth and the snaffling of freebies that their new crest is expected to feature an overflowing superkmarket trolley rampant above the motto "Fill Yer Boots". So why shouldn't Blunkers, brought up in northern poverty no less gruelling than Cherie's, fill 'em too?

If Mr Blunkett's book had contained an apologia on these lines, admitting that he became greedy and brazen, and rooting that appetite for Eurotrash gaudiness to the grizzly bleakness of his childhood, one might easily warm to him again.

For unlike many of his colleagues this is not a man one instinctively loathed from the start. Apart from the heroic surmounting of that gruesome start (not just the blindness, but his father's death in an industrial accident), he was once, by all accounts, a funny and mischievous chap. When still in opposition, he heard that the female editor of a Sunday paper, dubious that anyone sightless could cope so brilliantly with the flood of documents, had ordered a team of reporters to expose his blindness as a sham. Soon after, at a party, someone introduced him to her. "God, you're looking great," he gushed. "And haven't you lost weight?"

Something awful happened to the David Blunkett who treated that editor's idiocy not with fury but with wit, and that thing, of course, was power. A few years later, swollen with arrogance and desensitised to what were once known in Sheffield as the common decencies, he had mutated into one of the more grotesque hypocrites even this government has produced.

Mr Blunkett, who as Education Secretary promised to put the sanctity of marriage at the heart of the national curriculum, seduced a woman barely returned from her honeymoon, and if that were not bad enough, the vagueness of his explanation about the fast-tracking of the nanny's visa was a crude insult to the intelligence. Fabled for the astonishing power of his memory, it was amazing that he had forgotten all about it.

Amnesia is a classic side-effect of the clinical depression to which Mr Blunkett and his friend Alastair Campbell have both laid claim, but these two beauties are clearly confusing that hideous illness with unfettered self-pity. It drips from every self-justifying line in a book packed with little else, and through all the cant and special pleading shines the flaw that has played such a crucial part in the self-destruction of New Labour's demi-monde: the bewildering absence of a shred of self-awareness.

Writing about the Panorama on football bungs recently, Mr Campbell criticised the programme for failing to apply the correct test when making any public claim - do I know this to be true? In her "I'm not Superwoman" keynote address to the nation, Cherie wept when she spoke of her son leaving home for university in Bristol, home of those flats. Just as Mr Campbell had no idea how his words would look coming from the sexer-up of dossiers, Mrs Blair had none how hers would sound to the mothers of boys the same age as Euan serving in Basra.

Mr Blunkett suffers the same self-delusional condition. He hasn't a clue how ridiculous his words will make him appear. Having once publicly attacked Mrs Quinn as an unfit mother to his little lad, he now refuses to name her in this self-exposé of his private life on the grounds that "it is proper for my private life to kept private."

He rails against press intrusion without mentioning the fortune he earns for writing a column in The Sun. Quite incredibly, he reports thinking about cancelling the Armistice Day ceremonials in November 2001 because he'd heard a version of that classic urban myth - the one about the Arab who repays an act of kindness by warning you not to be in London on a certain date - from a friend's wife who heard it from a friend (he was even "a little proud ... that we may have picked something up").

Mr Blunkett casually mentions calling for the bombing of al-Jazeera, as if this were a perfectly normal thing for a democratic western politician to advocate. And as for the protest march in London in March 2003, "I think Tony has stood up very well to the enormous pressure - frighteningly intimidating and people so bellicose." When a member of the war cabinet responsible for British involvement in action that has led to what we are now told is more than 500,000 civilian deaths calls protesters against that war "bellicose"... Well, it's hard to know what to say.

Other than that, this is the man Tony Blair recalled after the 2005 election because he felt that giving Mr Blunkett the tranquil govermental backwater of pensions might "help get his head sorted out". Once, the officially deranged sat in group sessions in glum Victorian hospitals making macramé pot-plant holders. Now, by way of a startling extension of Care in the Community, they are invited to deal with the pensions crisis. A major Cabinet post as occupational therapy... it's a lovely idea, Prime Minister, really it is, but on the evidence of this book I'm not absolutely convinced that it works.