Foolish he may have been, but the case is still unproven

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The charge sheet against David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, consists essentially of four allegations. On the misuse of MPs' free rail travel he has already pleaded guilty, although the matter is under investigation by Sir Philip Mawer, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. On influencing the quick decision on the right of UK residence for his lover's nanny, he pleads the opposite and invites the semi-independent Sir Alan Budd to confirm that he has done nothing wrong. However, the circumstantial evidence against him is strong. He claims that the nanny's application was hurried through as part of a backlog-clearing exercise. That does not explain why she was granted leave to remain before the normal four-year qualifying period.

The charge sheet against David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, consists essentially of four allegations. On the misuse of MPs' free rail travel he has already pleaded guilty, although the matter is under investigation by Sir Philip Mawer, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. On influencing the quick decision on the right of UK residence for his lover's nanny, he pleads the opposite and invites the semi-independent Sir Alan Budd to confirm that he has done nothing wrong. However, the circumstantial evidence against him is strong. He claims that the nanny's application was hurried through as part of a backlog-clearing exercise. That does not explain why she was granted leave to remain before the normal four-year qualifying period.

On the suggestion that Mr Blunkett used civil servants to conduct his private dispute with Kimberly Quinn, his former lover, including trying to persuade her to sign a statement saying that she would leave her husband and briefing newspapers on his behalf, the Home Secretary still has questions to answer.

Then there is the fourth, overarching charge: that by the conduct of his private life he has undermined his credibility to an extent incompatible with the holding of high public office.

Of these charges, it must be said that all but the first are unproven - and giving Mrs Quinn a rail voucher to which she was not entitled, while it should not be glossed over, is not a sacking offence.

From what we know, some might conclude that Mr Blunkett has been a fool. But it is what he is alleged to have done, if true, that may make him unfit for ministerial office. Unless and until he is found to have acted improperly as a public servant rather than as a private individual, he cannot be required to resign. It could be pointed out to him that stepping down might reduce somewhat the intrusion into his own privacy and that of the other parties involved. And, in cynical, political terms, it could be argued that it would be sensible for Mr Blunkett to resign now, in order to save him, the Prime Minister and the Government from continued embarrassment. The personal drama that unfolded last week in public in court on the Strand in London is unlikely to diminish much in its intensity over the next few weeks and months.

Even more cynically, it might be argued that Tony Blair would have welcomed last week's headlines because at last they have pushed the continuing stream of grim news from Iraq off the front pages.

But that is going too far. As a result of the distraction of Blunkett's personal drama, the important measures contained in the pre- Budget report - as well as the significant question of the sustainability of public spending increases - received scant attention. We are some way, however, from a situation where the Government is paralysed by the distraction of the affair. In particular, no one seriously doubts Mr Blunkett's continuing competence in the efficient despatch of government business.

This newspaper has had its differences with the Home Secretary. We disagree profoundly with his tactic of seeking to undercut the Conservatives by appeasing the illiberal prejudices of sections of the electorate. We deplore the weakness he shares with Mr Blair for symbolic measures, often produced by the jerk of a knee when tapped with a rolled-up copy of the xenophobic press. We are alarmed by the contempt he shows for democratic freedoms - detaining people without trial, restricting trial by jury and introducing identity cards. In his private life he seems to be as impetuous and stubborn as in his public persona.

Unlike him, however, we shall not rush to a decision. Unlike him, we shall respect due process. The case against him is so far not proven.

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