Interview: David Blunkett

‘Would you have protested if you were a student today?’ ‘Yes I would have.’ DAVID HOLLAND goes all John Humphreys on politician DAVID BLUNKETT.

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“He shrieked at me that he didn’t care about lives, told me to call in the Army and machine gun the prisoners and – still shrieking – again ordered me to take the prison back immediately.” So spoke Martin Narey, director of the prison service at the time of the 2002 jail riots, of David Blunkett, the ex- Home Secretary, and the man I am talking to.

There is a long pause after I read the quote back to him. “Yes, I have read that. It is certainly true that I told Martin that by dawn we needed the prison officers to have retaken the jail. I would never, and did not talk about, machine gunning people from the roof.”

David Blunkett has been one of the most influential politicians of his generation. Dogged by scandal, in 2004 he was  forced to resign as Home Secretary after revelations that he was assisting his ex-lover’s Filipina nanny in speeding up her visa application, and was forced to resign as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in 2005 following the release of a series of reports about his business interests during his time outside the cabinet. He has also been blind since birth.

Inevitably, we discuss the subject of tuition fees. Blunkett vigorously defends his choice to introduce them in the first place: “I think ‘choose’ is putting it a bit strongly.” He stresses that the need to find money from somewhere outside the bounds of the Treasury created an “immediate imperative,” and decisions should be understood in that context. “I was putting [Gordon Brown] up for £1 billion for the first year but there was no way he was going to put up money for higher education.”

So Brown had been wrong not to give him the £1 billion? “[long pause] I think that in an ideal world I’d have wanted a much more generous system.” Then Blunkett gave his only unequivocal answer to a question: Would he have protested if he was a student today? “Yes, I would have.”

Before his resignation Blunkett was thought to rival Gordon Brown as Blair’s successor. “It wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility, [but] it would have been very difficult…for someone who can’t see to persuade their colleagues and the nation that they could be Prime Minister.”

But Blunkett, like all of his peers, will be judged mostly on one matter: Iraq. He remembers as an undergraduate facing criticism for being a member of the Labour party because of its support for the Vietnam war. “Years after it reminded me of Iraq and how difficult it is when a government takes a decision that is, by opinion and common consent, the wrong decision.”

The current inquiry is raising questions about the rigour of cabinet briefings. “You do get contradictory statements that we were not fully engaged and did not have full discussions.

“There were people who didn’t believe what [the UN resolution] said… in the UN and…in the cabinet. “I was concerned about it; concerned about just what control and what influence we might have over the US. And although I supported going into Iraq, and I haven’t changed my mind [about] the aftermath of the invasion.” He says America’s dismantling of “a, what might be called, functioning state might have cost the Iraqis, the Americans, and ourselves, dear,” without a credible post-war integration programme.

“So can you give me a yes or no answer: were the cabinet sufficiently briefed on the invasion?” I press.

“Well, I know you’re playing an extraordinarily good role as John Humphreys, but I’m not giving you a yes or no answer; but not as fully as all of us in retrospect would have liked,” he replied.

But now the world is not staring at him with quite the same scrutiny, David Blunkett has milder ambitions. “To be able to continue writing and developing policies and having an influence over my party’s leadership and I hope to be able to do that from the back bench and to just enjoy life the way I should have done in my early 20s.”

A remarkably strong contrast from the image painted of him by Narey’s quotation. But then, he is a man who knows he will be largely remembered for a decision that is regarded as a political disaster. Perhaps ‘enjoying his life from the backbenches’ is as much an ambition as a plea.