Leading article: Lord Nolan is right: Blair is also to blame

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The Independent Online

Mr Blair on Wednesday sought to deflect criticism of Mr Blunkett's judgement, and of his own judgement in supporting him, by saying that the media "frenzy" made it impossible for the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions "to do that job properly". There are, of course, serious matters here that should be the subject of debate. Much of the satire on Mr Blunkett's private life has depended on cruel and tasteless references to his blindness for its alleged humour. Much of the press reporting of his private life has been intrusive, prurient and unpleasant. It speaks volumes for the strength of Mr Blunkett's character that he steeled himself to accept all that as the price of high office. But any suggestion by Mr Blair that The Independent on Sunday's report last week that Mr Blunkett had broken the Ministerial Code was part of such a "frenzy" is unworthy.

Our Whitehall Editor's report was sober and factual. Former ministers are required by the code to seek the advice of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments before taking up paid jobs within two years of leaving office. They are not required to take the advice, but they are required to seek it. Even if ignorance were a defence, which it is not, Mr Blunkett could not plead it because he had just been reminded by the committee of the precise requirement of the code. This seemed a sufficiently important issue to lead our front page. The Ministerial Code is, rightly, taken extremely seriously by civil servants, ministers and the Prime Minister - and journalists. Some people, including Mr Blair, may reasonably take the view that Mr Blunkett's breach did not justify his resignation. Others, including Lord Nolan, who instituted a more open regime for maintaining high standards of conduct in public life in 1994, take a different view.

"It's the fault of the Government that he's been allowed to see if he can get away with it," Lord Nolan said on the morning of Mr Blunkett's resignation. "Blair should insist on ministers all round obeying the rules."

As we report today, Sir Alistair Graham, the current chairman of the committee set up by Lord Nolan, agrees that the Prime Minister has given "a rather obscure and muddied message about ethical standards". He says, and it is hard to disagree, that "these issues in the end are always matters of leadership".

The quality of Mr Blair's leadership will matter more than ever over the next few months. He faces severe tests over the Terrorism Bill and his reform programme for schools, the NHS and welfare. It is no use, for example, Mr Blair simply telling MPs that they must vote to abrogate fundamental principles of justice because the police say they "need" the power to detain suspects for 90 days. That would not be a satisfactory argument at the best of times, but when the Prime Minister's judgement has been called into question on other issues, it is even harder for him to expect MPs or the public to take him on trust. Especially when, as Michael Mansfield points out on the next pages, it seems unlikely that the new legislation would have helped to foil the 7 July or 21 July terrorist attacks. Mr Blair will also face questions about his judgement and motives when it comes to the modernisation of the welfare state. Although this newspaper supports the principles of reform, there is a danger that the Prime Minister's approach will undermine the morale and motivation of the very public servants on whom improvement depends - not to mention those of otherwise supportive Labour MPs. In this, Mr Blair is not assisted by the opinion of Sir Christopher Meyer, the British ambassador to the US during the preparations for war in Iraq, that Mr Blair "paid less attention to detail than issues demanded". On reform of incapacity benefit, for instance, it is too easily suspected that he prefers easy soundbites - "if people are able to work they should be at work and not on benefit" - to the complex policy task required to avoid unfair hardship.

The Prime Minister needs to pause after the turbulence of last week and show that he is listening to legitimate concerns about his judgement. The perception of an arrogant and out-of-touch leader may be about to harden into a conviction that his continuation in office serves no purpose.

Mr Blunkett's resignation was the right outcome, but it was marred by Mr Blair's insistence that "he goes, in my view, with no stain of impropriety against him whatever". Gordon Brown would greatly strengthen his claim to succeed Mr Blair if he were to promise that the Ministerial Code would be policed by an independent body, and not by him as Prime Minister.