From a servant to a sultan
The Blunkett affair reveals a man made arrogant by power — and it will do huge political damage
IN THE beginning, new Labour could inspire. Cynics may scoff, but in 1997 we honest simpletons felt a healthful breeze blowing across the political landscape. Tony Blair rallied his MPs in Church House and affirmed the party’s humility: “We are not the masters. The people are the masters. We are the people’s servants . . . Remember, you are not here to enjoy the trappings of power but to do a job and to uphold the highest standards in public life.”
Reader, I believed him. The late Tory years had sown a helpless yearning for something new and clean. Now, on the far side of innumerable disappointments (not to mention shockingly un-servantlike behaviour by bossy ministers) it reads as black comedy. But this week it is the last sentence which resonates: the vow not to misuse the trappings of power.
In the David Blunkett affair, whatever the visa inquiry decides, the most damaging thing is evidence of the way the Home Secretary acted the sultan, allegedly cavalierly assuming that the perks of office were his to share as he wished. The Westminster village, which can be amazingly sentimental for a pack of jackals, has been talking up the Home Secretary’s “deeply moral” nature. But read my lips, chaps: there is much in this business which ordinary people really won’ t like. The political damage is huge.
The affair itself is obviously grim. I am no moral absolutist in these matters, and happy to distinguish private from public life: I defended the louse Robin Cook, regretted the loss of David Mellor, and think Michael Howard was a fool over Boris. As for Bill Clinton, I always knew he’d get away with it after hearing the verdict of a Midwest farmhand: “If Hillary don’t got a problem with it — I don’t got one.”
But the Kimberly Quinn business is enough to make the most easy-going flinch. It is black treachery to embark on a secret affair within months of your marriage. Worse still to become pregnant twice, apparently careless of the children’s paternity, while your older husband goes through reversal of vasectomy for your sake. This cruel and dishonourable betrayal went on for three years. And who was enthusiastically complicit in it? Why, the Home Secretary: the man who orders citizens into parenting classes, and who — the year before starting this affair — decreed that schoolchildren be taught the sanctity of marriage. (“The commitment that is made by people through marriage is a way of emphasising . . . stability to children.” Blunkett, 2000) Moreover, once his mistress decided to renounce treachery and be forgiven by good Mr Quinn, Mr Blunkett threatened to use the law to prove paternity and blow their family apart.
That is bad enough. But you could argue — just — that it is private not public wickedness. The thing that tips it over into the public domain is the fact that the Home Secretary apparently forgot that he was not “to enjoy the trappings of power”. Even if he did not fast-track the nanny’s visa, Mrs Quinn’s e-mail to a friend suggests that he let her think so. Visa forms are designed for poor English speakers: what ordinary help could the publisher of The Spectator need? Thus it is natural to suspect that it was extraordinary help she solicited; the Home Office admits that Mr Blunkett brought the form in to work. When Clive Soley, the senior Labour MP, says emolliently that it is quite normal for an MP to help a citizen by writing a letter or questioning officials, he seems to forget that a letter signed D. Blunkett works rather faster than one signed Bertie Backbench.
Beyond that lies a host of smaller stuff, equally sultan-like. Two senior civil servants were ordered to a meeting between Mrs Quinn and her lawyers when the story was about to break: had they nothing else to do, on our payroll? Mr Blunkett admits giving his lover two first-class rail tickets at taxpayers’ expense; Home Office PR bleats that she was eight months pregnant and the couple were in “a deep and close relationship”. Yet she was not broke, but highly paid and married to a millionaire director of Vogue. The tickets — which Mr Blunkett claims not to know were an abuse — have a strong whiff of being a “trapping of power”. So does his call to the American Embassy which produced a temporary passport for her child within hours. Anybody who has even tried to speak to a human being at the American Embassy — let alone get them to hurry up — will be greatly impressed by this particular trapping. Then there were the government chauffeurs, using cars full of official papers to give Mrs Quinn lifts to Derbyshire: such a thing is not normally available even to spouses.
None of these things look enormous, individually. But they add up to a picture of a man made arrogant and impatient by high office, who saw no need to be careful how he impressed a silly woman with his power. There is a line ascribed to him by Mrs Quinn’s friends about the DNA dispute — “The law is on my side. I know because I made the law.” We do not know if that is true, but it has an awfully likely ring to it. It goes with the snappish Mr Blunkett on the Today programme sneering at a question about Iraq, the Mr Blunkett who said he felt like “cracking open a bottle” when Harold Shipman committed suicide in the care of a prison he answers for.
This is a remarkable man, in many ways admirable, a survivor of great personal misfortune and a reservoir of serious talent. But he is also a bruiser and a bully. He likes his own way. He’s the Home Secretary, so he gets it. Politics will always need such ruthless, opinionated men. But that is precisely why we build structures of restraint to prevent them becoming self-serving. When a minister as senior as this apparently starts kicking the barriers down, and the Prime Minister (another sultan, in his way) doesn’t see that it matters, then we can’t just shrug it off kindly because the perpetrator was in love.
We have to take notice. It is our duty as employers. Can’t have the servants of the people thinking it’s OK to nick the spoons.