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Sunday 6 November 2005

Blunkett is torn apart by the media hounds

'DO hounds ever feel a twinge of sympathy for the fox?" asked Jonathan Freedland in Wednesday's Guardian apropos the pursuit of David Blunkett. "As they tear the flesh from the bones of their prey, do they wonder, if only for a second, how the poor creature came to land in such a desperate spot?"

Like Freedland, I'm one of the hounds who has felt some twinges as Blunkett's career disintegrated. As the leader of the pack, the Daily Mail, lamented on Thursday, although Blunkett had brought his troubles on himself, "in a government full of pygmies and placemen, he stood out as a genuine heavyweight who never ducked the big issues". And, dammit, he is blind and his rise from the bottom of the heap took enormous courage and determination.

Blunkett's is a 'you-couldn't-make-it-up' story. Born blind in 1947 in Sheffield, at the age of four this only child was dispatched against the wishes of his working-class parents to a bleak council boarding school where their visits to him were restricted to one a month. He was educated at schools for the blind at a time when blind people's career prospects were very limited. "When I was blinded as a child," the late, great journalist T E Utley told me once, "I had a choice. I could operate competently as a blind man and become a switchboard operator, or ruthlessly depend on others to help me achieve what I could have achieved sighted."

Utley gained his Cambridge first and his distinguished career by using friends and family and secretaries and colleagues to read to him and lead him around. "Take me to the lavatory, if you wouldn't mind, dear boy," he would say to the nearest man at a party. But Utley had been educated privately and well. Blunkett was consigned for much of his youth to three different schools for the blind and had no choice but to become competent: guide dogs and Braille machines would become his essential tools.

His already-difficult life was made terrible when he was 12: his father, who worked for the gas board, died after falling into a vat of boiling water. The board refused compensation because he was over retirement age, his little family were left on the breadline and Mrs Blunkett died when her son was in his late teens. Still, by telling him that he was better than sighted people, she had given him the priceless gift of self-belief. "You either go under or it gives you a core of steel," he said once.

By now, having rejected advice to become a lathe operator or a piano tuner, Blunkett put himself through night school to pass the exams his school thought beyond the blind and won a place at Sheffield University to read politics, where he was taught by Bernard Crick.

Crick's belief that "politics is ethics done in public" had a profound influence on Blunkett, who was ever a conviction politician with a real sense that he was in politics to serve. Some of the most poignant moments last week were the interviews where Crick showed his bewilderment that a man for whom he had so much affection and respect could have thrown away his glittering career.

By 22, Blunkett was a teacher and the youngest-ever councillor on Sheffield City Council, becoming leader of his party, and hence of the council, within 10 years. He was seen as a man of immense industry and ability who took great joy and satisfaction from his work. His populist and flamboyant side were evident in the passionate speeches that had him in 1982 elected to the Labour National Executive - the first non-MP for 40 years.

Yet stubbornness, arrogance, ruthlessness and intolerance were also evident: he had, and has, little understanding of those who don't fight circumstances as he has done. That his colleagues failed to support him last week is partly attributable to his having criticised some of them harshly to his authorised biographer; his reputation as a bully was confirmed when Lord Stevens, ex-head of the Metropolitan Police, described him as intimidating.

An MP from 1987, Blunkett joined the shadow cabinet in 1992. Two years later Tony Blair became leader.

Although Blunkett had once flown the red flag above Sheffield town hall, he was socially conservative and had no difficulty in enthusiastically embracing the philosophy of New Labour. As a zealous, reforming Secretary of State for Education from 1997, he had mixed success but was popular for his no-nonsense style and concern with standards. As Home Secretary, from 2001, he was Blair's right-hand man and preferred heir. They both had authoritarian inclinations: Blunkett happily dismissed critics as "airy-fairy libertarians".

In his private life, he was lonely. He had been divorced in 1990 from the mother of his three sons, and his blindness as well as his brusqueness were barriers to making new relationships. He stole one of his civil servants from her boyfriend, but the relationship didn't last.

Now, his future was put at risk when, as he put it, "the socialist met the socialite". Petronella Wyatt of the Spectator introduced him over dinner to the magazine's publisher, Kimberly Fortier: "We ordered our food. Mr Blunkett and I ate Dover sole. Ms Fortier ate Mr Blunkett."

Their affair last three years. Despite the inconvenient existence of her wealthy husband, Stephen Quinn, Kimberly and Blunkett spent holidays together (sometimes in a cottage provided by the Duchess of Devonshire) and had a son, William.

Everything fell apart because - having refused to choose Blunkett over her husband - she ended their relationship, and when he demanded access to William, denied he was the father. The tempest of damaging stories that forced Blunkett's first resignation last December included the revelation that he had given Fortier/Quinn a railway warrant designed exclusively for spouses and that his office had speeded up a visa for her nanny. Blunkett became a bit of a joke, his private life lampooned in the satirical play Who's The Daddy?, Blunkett - The Musical and recently, on TV, the scurrilous A Very Social Secretary. Bitter, angry and impoverished by the legal costs incurred to prove paternity and gain access to William, Blunkett set out to make money. He had learned to enjoy the high life, including the grace-and-favour Mayfair house that went with his job and that Blair let him keep, and the exclusive club, Annabels, of which he was an honorary member - where he was picked up by a dodgy blonde who wanted a story to sell to the tabloids.

Last week, Blunkett was forced to resign on some technicalities, which included having three times ignored the ministerial convention that ex-ministers should consult a committee before taking jobs and - worse - having put in trust for his sons shares in a company that could have benefited from contracts with his Department of Work and Pensions. He - like Tony Blair - believes he has made mistakes but done nothing wrong, but that is par for the course with New Labour, which believes that rules and standards are for little people. Blunkett has been corrupted by power and he deserves his fate.

But I still feel the odd twinge.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards