Lunch with the FT: Three times a minister

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The maitre d’ and the guide dog between them get David Blunkett to my table and into one of the well-upholstered booths in which Green’s specialises, so I am face-to-face with the world’s most senior blind politician.

It is not a large league to lead, I guess, but he has done it with style, filling three cabinet posts in the nine years since Labour came to power, including that of home secretary. He orders the dog under the table, where it lies on my feet through the lunch, there being little alternative space for either it or my feet, warming my ankles and making my socks smell of dog all day. When I move my feet a little to keep the blood flowing, the dog grumbles, but in a well trained way.

The bags under Blunkett’s eyes bulge less, and he is calmer than I remember him as a minister. He resigned as home secretary in December 2004 after it emerged that his private office had intervened in a visa application from the nanny of his lover Kimberly Quinn, the married publisher of The Spectator.

He resigned a second time in November, from the post of work and pensions secretary, after breaching the ministerial code of conduct by failing to declare his involvement with a DNA testing company. For a while, it was Blunkett open season: The People tabloid published a story that he may have made pregnant, and then abandoned, a young estate agent named Sally Anderson. Anderson and the newspaper later admitted the allegations were false and Blunkett received an apology and hefty damages. The bags were inevitable.

I asked him nothing about any of this, not a word or a hint. He may have been guilty of small but significant misdemeanours, but I thought it was his own business. He has had a hard life, if one richly rewarded in public office. To take some pleasure where he could seemed to me small recompense.

He says he now has time for books and has spent the winter months reading “on the philosophy behind fascism - the things they didn’t teach you in political science at university”. This is part of a view that he says has animated many of his actions in office, that “the lessons of Weimar and of pre-Franco Spain are clear. When people are alarmed and frightened, they turn not to the left but to the right. It was something I could never get journalists on the liberal left to see.” This opens him up to the subject of the media - on which his successor, Charles Clarke, had been trenchant three days before our interview, and on which he is trenchant, too. (Of all governments, this is the one most contemptuous of the media.)

Green’s is a famous fish restaurant, chosen because his office said he loved fish. He then proceeded to order fishcakes, which could be any old fish, and Irish stew, made with lamb. Eating doesn’t seem to be a great concern - he eats quickly and a little awkwardly - but speaking is. He talks quite loudly and clearly, with a strong Yorkshire accent and an occasional laugh.

He sees the endless speculation on the succession from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown as largely a media issue - one growing from “their determined attempt to do down Tony. You wouldn’t think that we in Britain have two world-level statesmen at the head of this country - Blair and Brown. Because that’s what they are. They are head-and-shoulders above any other politician now operating. They’re up there with Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton. You wouldn’t, of course, get any sense of that from the British press. The problem for both is that they came too close together. Had one been a generation later, then we would have been blessed.”

I ask him if he thinks New Labour will be prolonged into a Brown premiership. “Of course! They were united round what was known as The Project, to move beyond the stasis of the 1980s, to reach out to those who would support us beyond the old redoubts. Gordon was as much a part of that as Tony.

“New Labour is a balance. It’s one of the things I disagree fundamentally with [London mayor] Ken Livingstone about. He’s always on about a rainbow coalition of the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. But we’re aiming to alleviate these. So what happens when they’re no longer dispossessed and disadvantaged? You’ll lose them.

“One of the advantages of doing a column for The Sun [which he has done since his second resignation] is that you learn what people feel. I wrote a column against the British National Party last week, and I got a flood of e-mails within hours. The BNP is a threat. It’ll come second in my constituency [the Brightside area in Sheffield]. You have to show people what you’re doing on their behalf, all the time.

“It’s a balance of doing right by the working class and the people who need a bit of help, and the middle class who also want good schools and health service and who want to feel as though they’re contributing to that, and that we still give a damn. And people must feel that things are getting better. Ordinary people don’t want to feel that the middle class are condescending to them or doing things for their own good. I grew up poor, I know about that. But they do want the middle class to vote Labour.”

Later, he adds: “It will be fine if Gordon’s intellect and concern for the future allow him to take a broad church view, rather than relying on a narrow coterie.”

Do you fear he will?

“Ha ha! That’s as far as I go.”

Back on the safer ground of the wicked media, he says: “There’s been a long-term move away from reporting to punditry, columnising, striking attitudes, airing prejudices. Liberal left papers especially have abandoned the analytical in favour of the attack mode. The government is the establishment, and so their venom is worse because it’s a leftwing government, because it’s not doing the things they think they want it to do. But left and right use the same themes. I felt a pincer movement on me. When you see The Independent and The Mail on Sunday colluding, then you know something has changed. Scepticism has turned to hatred... “

The dog sighs, shifts. His master’s voice goes on.

“... there was a time when the Mirror supported Labour come what may; I don’t mind that going. I think you should win the argument with journalists. But you can’t win it now... I only take the news media seriously on two conditions. One, if what they say is echoed in my constituency and second, if it’s clearly correct. An example: at the Home Office, I got statistics showing that street crime had jumped by 50 per cent. It hadn’t hit the media yet. I said to Tony Blair, we have to do something big and fast, and we opened up a special campaign on street crime, with ring-fenced funding, and got it down. When the media got on to it, you had people accusing us of panic and a police state and all that kind of thing. And often the same people would write columns about people they knew being mugged.”

We spoke as the row over the release of foreign criminals, which came to engulf Charles Clarke, was breaking. Blunkett used it to illustrate what he said had become an obsession for him while he was home secretary - to introduce more accountability into his civil service. “The legislation for deporting foreign-born criminals who had served more than a year in prison was passed by parliament in 2003. In 2004, I discovered the department hadn’t implemented it. It was clear from this week’s events the situation was a mess. It took them two years to implement a law. Ministers cannot be expected to be their own trouble-shooters. There’s just too much work.

“Now, the Nolan rules mean ministers can interfere less in the civil service than they could before. [Lord Nolan had drawn up rules on the conduct of ministers - when Blunkett was forced to resign from the cabinet for a second time last year, Nolan had added wind to the sails by saying that he should go.] I interfered more than any other minister, if you call interfering trying to get them to understand that their actions made a huge difference to the lives of ordinary people. The history and the culture of the civil service make them defensive against politicians. There’s a huge penalty on rocking the boat, but if you mess up, you get promoted out of the mess you’ve made. And some of them did understand it. When some of them cried when I left the Home Office, these were the people who had got it.”

I asked him how big a division the Iraq war had left in the party, and in the country. “Very large. But it was right. I don’t have to say that now, but it is what I continue to think. I have a particular take on it. I thought that once resolution 1441 was passed on November 8 2002, then war was inevitable. [The resolution threatened “serious consequences” on Iraq if it did not comply fully with its obligations to disarm.] And I thought that if we hadn’t had the war then [Saddam Hussein] would end up more powerful. I never attached supreme importance to finding the weapons of mass destruction. I remember saying to John Humphrys [on Radio 4’s Today programme]: “If we don’t find WMD then it was still right.

“I didn’t agree with Robin Cook [the late former foreign secretary and leader of the Commons] about much, but I did on this - that we needed a game plan for after the invasion. And of course, as it now seems, the Americans didn’t have one.”

Quite suddenly, he says he must go. The dog is roused from my feet, the maitre d’ assists, and Blunkett is off through the restaurant, momentarily hushing the other diners who have been conversing, largely, in accents more of St James’s than his. He has not - for all the scandal and disappointment he has had - lost his political appetite. He wants to be back. “It’s no bed of roses, being on the back benches,” he says, almost as a parting shot.

Green’s Restaurant

36 Duke Street, St James’s, London SW1

1 x salmon fishcake with fennel

1 x smoked fish platter

1 x Irish stew

1 x monkfish with gnocchi

1 x espresso

2 x bottles of water

Total: ₤69.75

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