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Last Updated: Sunday, 29 January 2006, 11:48 GMT
David explains
On Sunday 29 January 2006 Andrew Marr interviewed David Blunkett MP

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

David Blunkett MP
David Blunkett MP

ANDREW MARR: Now, it's three months since David Blunkett resigned from the Cabinet for the second time after his private and public lives again became entangled, to the detriment, he now admits, of the government as a whole.

But David Blunkett remains a key new Labour player behind the scenes.

And in his time he's run Education, Home Office, the Department of Work and pensions. And therefore he's been at the heart of a string of controversial measures that Tony Blair is currently battling to push through Parliament.

Well I met David Blunkett yesterday among the stunning scenery of the Peak District close to his Sheffield constituency.

And he talked in detail about the government's problems for the first time on television since he left office.

It's a perilous time obviously for the government, and I began by asking about his assessment of the difference caused by a new leader of the Tories in place, the recent turmoil inside the Liberal Democrats.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well we are in flux, I mean domestically we're in flux, all three political parties addressing the future. The Liberal Democrats, not in meltdown, but in considerable disarray. The government in its third term, the Conservatives deciding to abandon just about everything that they've been arguing and standing for over recent years and the international scene in complete flux.

The way I put it is, is this the moment when whoever blinks first will lose the centre ground for the future. And it's really important that it's the Conservative backbenchers, the Telegraph and Mail readers that blink, and not Labour backbenchers.

ANDREW MARR: And yet it could very well be Labour who blinks, particularly when it comes to the education reforms and so many other big controversial choices in front of Parliament at the moment.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well that is going to be the measure of how mature we are over the next few weeks. And it will give, I think, all of us great pause for thought to recognise that we're not simply dealing with a set of measures, important as they are in the education White Paper in the forthcoming Bill. But we're actually dealing with a seminal moment in politics.

ANDREW MARR: Let's take education head on. Here is something where the division is not between the hard left and the rest - it runs right through the middle of New Labour, you've got people like Neil Kinnock and Alistair Campbell and Estelle Morris, hostile to the government's proposals at the moment. What chance do you think there is of a compromise that allows Tony Blair to say I have got what I wanted?

DAVID BLUNKETT: I think there's a real possibility of a way forward. I mean I spent six and a half years leading the Labour Party's policy on education in opposition, and then four years in government. In 1998 we had the debate around the Education Bill which became an Act. Many of the arguments we're having now we had then.

ANDREW MARR: A lot of people in the Labour Party feel that these proposals so undermined local education authorities that one way or another some kind of selection is bound to spread, because if you give schools power, you give schools control over their ethos they will find ways of selecting.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Yes, and we mustn't say to people, look if you only understood you'd be smarter and wiser, you'd be as good as us. What we've got to say to people is let's work this through together.

ANDREW MARR: On the other hand when it comes to the role of LEAs and when it comes to selection, one way or another the party is divided right down the middle. And it seems to a lot of people it will be a very clear choice. A bigger role for the LEAs even than they have now, and less selection in the system - or the withering of the Local Education Authorities and more selection?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Right. And we can get it right. Because we can take the admissions code which won't be built in, 76 pages built into a Bill. But it will actually be in my view crucial to get the having regard to supplemented by the words that will actually ensure that it is necessary...

ANDREW MARR: Force of law.

DAVID BLUNKETT: ...well absolutely, but not written into the Bill itself. But that the admissions code has to be not just had regard to, but has a strengthening of it, which means that when the Local Authority acts as the strategic overview perhaps through a forum, locally, setting up an admissions forum that all schools, and the Local Education Authority, are involved in. They have to take into account the admissions code, not just have regard to it. Now I think that is perfectly feasible.

I think with the forum that the strategic authority oversees with the right of appeal to the adjudicator with the strength and adjudicator role we can get the admissions policy right. What we can't do is overturn the history of geography, of economic and social requirements which mean that if you want neighbourhood community schools some of them will be in deeply deprived areas, and there's no way in which we're going to bus people from extremely wealthy areas saying, sorry you can't go to your neighbourhood comprehensive school, we're going to bus you to the other side of a city or town. No, no way are we going to be able to do that.

ANDREW MARR: Sure, but just to be clear, this is not force of law, it's a strengthening of the language. And it's something that you think because you've clearly been involved discussing these matters, that the Prime Minister could live with?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Yes I do and I think he can do so because his objective and the objective of those who are worried, but care deeply about raising standards, is actually to have the momentum, the focus, the involvement of those, for instance in business or universities and colleges, who can add something to the momentum for improvement in standards. And the lesson I've learned, not just in education, but in the Home Office and in the Welfare State debate, is if you take your foot off the accelerator, if you're not willing to look at new ways of providing incentives, providing support, providing momentum you lose the plot.

ANDREW MARR: So we see there on one issue the contours of a possible compromise or deal, or agreement. Can I move on to some other areas where you were heavily involved in the past, you know them very well, where the government's been in trouble. 90 days detention is now dead, I assume. Something that you fought for from the Home Office. Are we as a country more dangerously positioned and placed because of the failure of the 90 days proposal?

DAVID BLUNKETT: I don't think it's fundamental to the risk that we have as a nation. I think it was a good debate, I think it was an important debate. Because it actually got on the table the consequences of the 7th July and the 21st July last year, and why the nation had to take seriously the warnings that had been given by the police, by the Special Branch and security services, and by politicians.

ANDREW MARR: If that's the case wasn't it a bit ridiculous to push it so hard for so long and lose so big?

DAVID BLUNKETT: The great strength of Tony Blair since 1994 has been to show leadership domestically and internationally, at times when it would have been a lot easier for him to have backed off. And on so many occasions, I know from the domestic agenda in terms of education and Home Office, anti-social behaviour, street crime, the whole of terrorism issues, and on reform of the welfare state and getting people back to work. On all those occasions he has been right in pushing the boundaries, in taking it a step further.

ANDREW MARR: Except that you could argue that on that and some other issues he's actually lost things that he could have got, had he compromised earlier in the first place?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well look, in politics you get criticised if you compromise for being a compromiser, and you get attacked when you don't compromise for being belligerent.

There are occasions when all of us need to compromise, sometimes that means adjusting the same principle and objective, but a different route for getting there. Sometimes it means that you realise that the people are not going to take it at that moment in time. That's why you build blocks, it's like a stepping stone approach to get across a river.

ANDREW MARR: Let's look at another issue that was very close to your heart, which was identity cards.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Mmm. Still is.

ANDREW MARR: Still is! Well I was going to ask because of course on a couple of key aspects of that it's been defeated in the House of Lords, comes back to the Commons. Do you take the same view as the Lord Chancellor, that for identity cards to work properly they have to be compulsory? At least it has to be compulsory to sign up for cards to be part of the register?

DAVID BLUNKETT: It has to be compulsory for your specific identifier to be on the database, that's the only way in which a modern relevant identity system can work. The card itself is almost irrelevant, I mean in future your specific identifier, your iris, your fingerprint, whatever, could actually be taken in the years to come without bothering with the card at all. So the purpose of it is to actually have an identifiable record of who's in the country, who's entitled to work, who's entitled to free public services, who's entitled to travel.

ANDREW MARR: So the Commons must reverse that Lords defeat for identity cards to be a serious proposal?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Yes, and the reason the Lords passed it was precisely to destroy the identity cards Bill, they knew precisely what they were doing. To abandon that is silly, and they know it's silly, it's all a political game.

ANDREW MARR: What do you say to David Cameron who says, said on this programme, these cards are simply unBritish?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well I think that's just very silly. We now live in an entirely different world where biometrics are going to be used across the developed world for travel, where we'll have to pay enormous amounts to get into the United States if we want to visit Florida, to Disney World or whatever.

And we've got to actually accept that in a society where we have the only free Health Service in the world, and we have access to our labour market, we want to know who's here and who's entitled to draw down on those services.

ANDREW MARR: It looks to a lot of people, as if, when you do the maths, this proposal, these identity cards, are not going to get through the House of Commons. The Conservatives are now against, the Liberal Democrats, a lot of people on the Labour benches, as with the compromise on education isn't there going to have to be a major compromise to get ID cards?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well you can't compromise. You either have a proper organised, verifiable, almost impossible-to-break system of identity which has the database, or you don't. I think we've got to keep up that momentum of persuading people this good for you, it's right for you, this is something that protects your identity, your person, your ability to be able to use the facilities of this country, and protect us against organised crime.

ANDREW MARR: Before we leave the Home Office agenda, I must just ask you, you had the odd run-in I think it's fair to say, with the Met boss in your day. How do you react to Sir Ian Blair's recent comments about - you're now writing for The Sun newspaper as well, about the press being institutionally racist, biased in the way they report crime, and spending far too much attention on things like the Soham murders?

DAVID BLUNKETT: I think if Ian Blair were going to go over the last few days again he'd phrase it very differently. He was trying to make a point. And I think all of us learned, and I certainly did in the near nine years I was a Cabinet Minister, that you had to stop reflecting in the way that you would do over a dinner table, and you had to watch every single sentence you uttered, it makes you a much more boring politician, and maybe now from the back benches I can be a little bit more adventurous again.

ANDREW MARR: Well, let's see if I can tempt you in that case, because a lot of people around town think that if there hasn't been the new deal at least there has been some kind of revived conversation consensus between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, about a handover, about how that's going to be dealt with. What's your sense of that? You're close to both of them.

DAVID BLUNKETT: My sense is that there is a new understanding, yes.

DAVID BLUNKETT: And it's good because anybody with any ounce of understanding of politics knows that when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown work together we're a winner. And when they're divided our opponents can divide us and it's as simple as that. So, good on them. And whether it's a year or two years, it actually will be a sensible process of combining the talents that we have, of the Cabinet as a whole, and of the party as a whole, in making sure that we don't allow the new leader of the Tory Party, very smart, very able, determined to divide us and to occupy our territory - we don't allow him an inch.

ANDREW MARR: And a year or two years is, you think, roughly speaking, what we're talking about. And education presumably, getting the education reforms through, key to the Prime Minister's legacy?

DAVID BLUNKETT: I think we will have settled this by the summer and we will take on the Conservatives and expose David Cameron and, goodness knows what will have happened to the Liberal Democrats by then. But none of us, none of us ought to be in the least bit complacent because the May elections, including in London, are going to be extremely difficult for us.

ANDREW MARR: And that implies that by the end of this parliamentary year, at any rate, a lot of the big reforms will have gone through legislatively and that gives the Prime Minister more space to stand aside?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well, over the next 18 months we'll have seen substantial reform but I think the measure of, the nature of a third term Labour government moving to getting a historic fourth term, is that reform is not a process that ends when you pass a piece of legislation.

Not just because you have to deliver on the ground, but actually because a party that decides that it's done all it needs to do is a party that will lose power.

ANDREW MARR: But you could envisage for instance, the Prime Minister saying, I don't know, come the Party Conference, starting to lay out the timetable and prepare us all for the change.

DAVID BLUNKETT: (Laughter)

ANDREW MARR: And you still think that Gordon Brown is certainly the person who will then take over?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well I'm hardly going to pronounce something that is terribly earth-shattering in saying that it's self-evident (laughter).

ANDREW MARR: Let's look at your own situation. Because you had three months now, pretty much exactly, to reflect since your resignation.

What do you say, first of all, to all those people who said, you know, once was bad enough, but you came back in again and to go through all this the second time, just awful. How could you have done it?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well I mean we always say, don't we, once is a mistake, twice is foolish. The pressures that existed were such that it was damaging to the Prime Minister and the government for me in those circumstances to stay, because of the tirade of what was appearing in the press, the innuendo, the accusation, so I got out of it.

And I think that was a sensible thing to do. If I had written to the advisory committee on ministerial appointments when I was in, on the back benches, before May 6th, I would not have resigned on November 2nd...

ANDREW MARR: That was a straightforward error.

DAVID BLUNKETT: But - it was an error - but make no mistake about it, the pressure on me would have continued because I think anyone who looks back on that six months between May 6th and 2nd November could see precisely what was going on.

ANDREW MARR: Well, you say that, but the whole Annabel's business. Is your case...

DAVID BLUNKETT: Yes, I went, I went to the nightclub twice, only twice in my life, and I had a meal and I left before midnight just in case something turned into a pumpkin. And people thought this was a great cause celebre.

ANDREW MARR: But you turned into something worse than a pumpkin as far as the newspapers were concerned.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Absolutely.

ANDREW MARR: It it your case that you were basically the victim of a scam?

DAVID BLUNKETT: I'm not going to go into that at this moment in time. I think people looking back make a very clear judgement.

ANDREW MARR: There are two things that you said when you went that I ought to check up with you about. One, that by about this time that you'd be moving out of the grace and favour place in Belgravia, how are you getting on with that? And (b) that you were going to get rid of the last of those family shares?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Yes, the shares became an irrelevance because the company went bankrupt which was highly predictable as early as June of last year, which was not commonly known to those who were speculating.

ANDREW MARR: So they're worthless and stay worthless?

DAVID BLUNKETT: They've gone. The second thing is the house. I gave myself three months to find somewhere to find somewhere and the Prime Minister was good enough to say, you take your time but obviously we all know you've got to get out, as you no longer have the position to be able to occupy it.

It's been my home for eight years, it's a furnished house and I'm paying the bills, although not the rent because that would give me security and the government don't want to put that position. And I've found somewhere, and I shall be moving within a matter of weeks. But as anyone, and surveyors and lawyers know, you can't actually predict these things.

ANDREW MARR: Listening to you talk about politics, you've got the passion, you've got the interest in the detail, you're clearly still talking to the Prime Minister and everybody else. Is there any chance at all that you'll return to government?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Oh I doubt it. I mean...

ANDREW MARR: But there's some chance...

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well, I don't want to go into why events took off from May 6th. I simply want to say that there are other ways of serving the public, of making a difference, than being in Cabinet. I said so on November 2nd. I'm looking to, and trying to find ways of doing that effectively.

ANDREW MARR: But one day a call comes, and at the other end "It's Gordon here, David, I've got a proposal for you" (said in a Scottish accent). You're not going to put the receiver straight down are you?

DAVID BLUNKETT: I think there's going to be some mimics who in real trouble with you, you know, you've got a new career coming up! I think I'd better just get on with the job of helping this government to make a difference to people's lives and that will take the pressure off me, not least those in the journalistic profession, who would actually have apoplexy if they thought that I was going to come back into Cabinet again.

ANDREW MARR: David Blunkett, thank you very much.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Thank you.

INTERVIEW ENDS


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy


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