A tale of two politicians with high ambitions and futures thrown into doubt

Not so long ago, Blunkett contemplated being a leadership candidate against Brown when the vacancy arose
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The Independent Online

For very different reasons this has been a bleak autumn for the two most indispensable ministers in the Cabinet. In his eighth year as Chancellor, Gordon Brown delivers another of his pre-Budget reports today. No doubt he will give a robust parliamentary performance, but he had high hopes of performing as Prime Minister by now. Instead it is Tony Blair who plans for a third term with the Chancellor's old political foe, Alan Milburn, by his side.

For very different reasons this has been a bleak autumn for the two most indispensable ministers in the Cabinet. In his eighth year as Chancellor, Gordon Brown delivers another of his pre-Budget reports today. No doubt he will give a robust parliamentary performance, but he had high hopes of performing as Prime Minister by now. Instead it is Tony Blair who plans for a third term with the Chancellor's old political foe, Alan Milburn, by his side.

Not so long ago the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, contemplated being a leadership candidate against Mr Brown when the vacancy arose. Now Mr Blunkett has less soaring ambitions as he fights for his political life.

Mr Blunkett embarks on a highly charged battle to save his career while saying little in public about the nature of his relationship with Kimberly Quinn. Normally it is not the role of political columnists to reflect on such personal matters. We have enough on our hands making sense of the political relationship between Mr Blair and Mr Brown. I am even more reluctant to wade in when the figures involved have been restrained about making public comments. Even so the precise nature of the relationship seems to me central to this particular case. It is the unavoidable context of the political offences Mr Blunkett is accused of committing.

From what I can gather Mr Blunkett regarded Mrs Quinn almost as his partner, not a mistress with whom he was having a casual fling. I am told he tried several times to persuade Mrs Quinn to marry him. If she had done so there would be no political crisis now. As far as Mr Blunkett is concerned his failure to persuade her is a personal tragedy, but not a political disgrace.

Perhaps Mr Blunkett misread the nature of the relationship. We are not in a position to make a judgement. What is evident is that for him it was a profound and serious relationship. He hoped the relationship would be lifelong. It was in that intoxicating context that he secured a spouses' train ticket to Doncaster and checked the progress of a nanny's visa.

In my view the biggest scandal of this affair is the price of that train ticket, more than £100 to get to Doncaster. The worst that can be said of Mr Blunkett is that he was too eager to please someone who he assumed was the mother of his child and who he wanted to be be his wife. If this had been a casual affair the minor allegations would be marginally more serious. As far I can judge he regarded this as the most important relationship in his life.

Mr Blunkett only knew about the allegations published in the Sunday Telegraph at four o'clock on Saturday afternoon. This gave him little time to prepare a detailed defence. Quite often it is the evasive defence that gets ministers into more trouble than the original offence. But Mr Blunkett moved quickly to establish an inquiry. Already the independence of the investigator, Sir Alan Budd, and the narrowness of the remit has been called into question.

This is another grim reflection on the largely misplaced lack of trust in British politics. The remit focuses on the one allegation that demands a detailed answer and no one can accuse Sir Alan Budd of being a new Labour stooge. Indeed Mr Blunkett went out of his way to tell officials that his investigator must have no connection with new Labour and must be recognised as being robustly independent. On this at least he got his way.

Mr Blunkett hopes that Sir Alan will report before Christmas. In terms of his ambition to lead the Labour party Gordon Brown has had to exercise patience on an incomparably grander timescale. While Mr Blunkett will know his fate within a week or two Mr Brown has played the role of leader-in-waiting for more than a decade.

The relationship between Mr Blair and Mr Brown is now beyond repair. But this does not mean that Mr Brown will use today's pre-Budget report as a coded leadership bid, overtly presenting a Brownite view that contrasts obviously with Mr Blair's political outlook.

Of course there will be glimpses of what a Brown leadership would be like. He rejects what he regards as Mr Blair's tendency to triangulate policies so the Prime Minister is positioned against his own party as well as the Conservatives.

The Chancellor will establish clear dividing lines between what he will argue is Labour's approach to tax and public spending and those of the Conservative party.

But on the whole the Chancellor's role as leader-in-waiting is a constraint, made more complicated by Mr Blair's announcement that he planned to stand down at the end of a third term. In the Treasury there are two weighty speeches gathering dust, one on poverty and the other on trust in politics. Mr Brown does not dare to deliver either of them in the current context precisely because they would be seen as an attack on Mr Blair and part of an embryonic leadership campaign.

The restraint will probably loosen soon after a general election, but for now Mr Blair and Mr Brown are united in their desire for another big victory against the Conservatives. It is in neither of their interests for Labour to limp back to power with a tiny majority. Today's pre-Budget report will therefore be much more about the general election than Mr Brown's future leadership ambitions.

Once more he will be prudent with a purpose, arguing that he can meet his spending plans without raising taxes partly because of the tough measures he has already taken to stabilise the economy and the job cuts planned for the civil service.

Although he has some private doubts about the single fearful theme of last week's Queen's speech he will acknowledge the importance of security measures and the need to pay for them. At the end of Mr Brown's speech I predict Mr Blair will be able to place a congratulatory hand on the Chancellor's shoulder without looking too embarrassed.

Mr Brown has no choice but to choose his themes with caution. More dust will accumulate on the undelivered speeches in the Treasury. Whether they like it or not Mr Brown and a few of his ministerial colleagues are perceived to be in a leadership contest that could last longer than the Second World War.

That is one comfort for Mr Blunkett. At least when he speaks now it will not be seen as a leadership bid. Mr Blair has told Mr Blunkett that he would like him to stay on as Home Secretary for a year or two after the election. Mr Blunkett's close allies make clear that he is also one of the few ministers who gets on well with both Mr Blair and Mr Brown. I suspect that he would like to be a Chancellor if Mr Brown moves from the Treasury to Downing Street.

That is leaping several hurdles. The Chancellor must be patient once more while Mr Blunkett's future is in the hands of an independent investigator and the subsequent verdict of the mighty media.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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