Shed no tears from Blunkett

STANDFIRST: Rules are rules and David Blunkett flouted them not once, but three times. Political Editor Graham Dines analyses why the Work and Pensions Secretary had to quit.

STANDFIRST: Rules are rules and David Blunkett flouted them not once, but three times. Political Editor Graham Dines analyses why the Work and Pensions Secretary had to quit.

THERE will be genuine regret but few tears at the decision of David Blunkett to resign from the Government.

Mr Blunkett has fallen foul of his own Prime Minister's insistence that all members of the Cabinet and junior ministers must adhere to a strict code of conduct.

During the final years of John Major's administration that slid to ignominy, Mr Blair and New Labour made hay at the expense of the hapless Prime Minister.

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“Just look at that sleazy lot - when we're in power, we wouldn't do anything like that. Trust us, we'll be whiter than white.

And the electorate did trust Blair - twice Labour has won power as the electorate remembered the Conservatives and decided they were not yet ready for office.

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Mr Blair insisted that his ministers would be above reproach. That's why Peter Mandelson had to resign twice and why Mr Blunkett, after becoming embroiled in a turbulent private relationship with the married publisher of the Conservative supporting magazine The Spectator, resigned last December as Home Secretary.

He was immediately reminded of the ministerial code which states he should not accept a post in the private sector for two years after resigning as a minister while still remaining an MP.

Mr Blunkett seems to have ignored this advice not once, but three times. If he had not sought re-election as an MP last May, it's unlikely that any action would have been taken.

But he did carry on, and he knew - as did everyone in Westminster who appeared to be in on the “secret'' - that Tony Blair wanted him back in his Cabinet once the election was one.

So why, once Parliament was prorogued, did he accept a position of a board member of the DNA company, and also buy £15,000 worth of shares in the company, knowing that he would have to resign from the board once he returned to the Cabinet? Why did he ignore the advice that he would be breaking the ministerial code?

Those are the questions that Mr Blunkett has failed to answer satisfactorily. That's why the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats sought answers, and they're quite right to do so.

It seems Mr Blunkett's fate, however, was not sealed by the Tories and Lib Dems, but by the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell, who wrote to Mr Blunkett this week that what he had done was a clean breach of the rules.

The Prime Minister had been prepared to ignore his own words on the purity of the ministerial Code of Conduct and allow the Work and Pensions Secretary to remain in office.

That in itself is a severe lapse in judgement by the Prime Minister, who until the very end seemed to want to keep his close friend Mr Blunkett in the Cabinet.

But Mr Blair would have looked ridiculous - and open to suggestions of “cronyism'' - had Blunkett been allowed to remain in office. It would have been a sheer arrogance on his part if he had allowed Blunkett to tear up the rule books: one law for the Tories, but another law for Labour when it is in power.

Finally yesterday, Mr Blunkett cracked under the pressure of the media and the opposition. He acknowledged his position had become untenable.

After a week of negative headlines, he went. It was inevitable and absolutely right that he should.

Excuses have been made. His private relationships have been disastrous and open to ridicule. He had no-one to turn to.

As someone who has been blind from birth, he had to rely on others.

But even with his disability - and one can only but admire a man who has mastered this appalling handicap to rise to become Leader of Sheffield City Council, then an MP in opposition, and a leading Cabinet minister in power - he should have accepted that rules are there to be adhered to.

Mr Blair “reluctantly'' accepted the resignation yesterday morning. A few hours later, he looked shattered in the Commons at Prime Minister's Questions as he told MPs that Mr Blunkett was “a decent and honourable man'' and could be proud of his record in the Government. His friend had only been guilty of a “misunderstanding of the rules''.

The Prime Minister told MPs in the House of Commons that he had continued to express his “full support'' for Mr Blunkett and had accepted his resignation only “reluctantly''.

Mr Blunkett may have “misunderstood the rules'' - but that's a lame excuse. He broke ministerial rules by taking that job without consulting an independent committee which advises former ministers on whether they should take up jobs.

There is now deep bitterness in New Labour circles over the need for him to resign. Harry Harpham, Mr Blunkett's constituency agent, said the MP “had been hounded out of office'' by a combination of pressure from the Conservative Party and the Press.

However, Shadow Commons leader Chris Grayling, who has written to Tony Blair on a number of occasions about Mr Blunkett's conduct, said his resignation had been “inevitable''.

“I don't believe that you can systematically ignore the ministerial code. Joining a company for two weeks during the general election campaign and becoming a director - people don't do that sort of thing.

“Through his own actions, he created huge question marks over his judgement.''

Under the ministerial code of conduct, ex-ministers are expected to consult the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACBA) over any appointment they take up within two years of leaving office.

During the course of the row it emerged that Mr Blunkett had also failed to contact the committee over his role as a paid advisor to a charity, Organisation for Research and Technology, which Downing Street said was a mistake.

Mr Blunkett stepped down as Home Secretary last year over claims his office had fast-tracked a visa application for his lover Kimberly Quinn's former nanny, and also giving a first class rail ticket to Mrs Quinn for her personal use at the taxpayers' expense.

Had he survived the latest breach of rules, Mr Blunkett would have had been dogged week after week by his actions. He has done the right thing by himself, his Prime Minister and his Government.

The tragedy is that his own actions - either through his ignorance or his arrogance - allowed himself to become scarred and damaged goods. His career is over - another key Blairite has left the scene.

As outgoing Tory leader Michael Howard taunted the Prime Minister in the Commons yesterday, Mr Blair is suffering “a slow seepage of his authority''.

The only “winner'' yesterday was Chancellor Gordon Brown, waiting in the wings to take over as Labour leader and Prime Minister. Mr Blunkett's resignation may have hastened the time when Tony Blair decides to call it a day.

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