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Tuesday, 1 October, 2002, 08:53 GMT 09:53 UK
Blunkett warning over Major revelations
John Major and Michael Portillo
Tories not stressing 'the puritan', says Portillo
Politics could be damaged by excessive interest in the private lives of public figures, Home Secretary David Blunkett has warned.

Mr Blunkett was commenting on the disclosure by former Tory MP Edwina Currie that she had an affair with former Prime Minister John Major.

I suspect he woke up every day wondering if this was going to be the day when his private life was going to be splattered across the newspapers

Peter Mandelson on John Major

Meanwhile, with the revelations one of the hottest topics being discussed in the bars at Labour's conference in Blackpool, ex-cabinet minister Peter Mandelson has said he feels slightly embarrassed on Mr Major's behalf.

Mr Mandelson said the former prime minister must have been filled with "terror and torpor" wondering if the revelations would appear in print when he was premier.

And one-time Conservative Party leadership contender Michael Portillo, who sat in Mr Major's cabinet, quipped at a fringe meeting that the Tories "are not emphasising the puritan at the moment for reasons you will understand".

'Neo-puritan'

As new extracts from Mrs Currie's diaries were published, Mr Blunkett compared the way the story has been covered with what he said was a "healthy" European disregard for private indiscretions.

David Blunkett
Blunkett: Unhappy to be called a puritan
He said talented people could be discouraged from taking on a career in politics because of fears for their privacy.

Mr Portillo, speaking at the same meeting, had accused Mr Blunkett of being a "neo-puritan," an "English Nationalist" and "authoritarian".

It was only the puritan tag which offended him, Mr Blunkett responded.

"If we are going to have an encouragement for people to come forward with talent to take part in politics at every level, then we are going to have to persuade the public to detach what we do as politicians on the public stage with what we do in our private lives," he said.

"The Europeans do have a much more healthy attitude in terms of private lives."

Searing

Meanwhile, at another meeting, former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson, whose own personal life has hit the headlines, said of the Major-Currie revelations: "For everyone who reads these things in the papers they are just today's headlines and they are quickly forgotten.

"But for the people they impact on they are sort of searing moments. They drop like sort of neutron bombs into your families, into your homes, you have to face Norma or whoever and it's painful."

Mr Mandelson was asked how Mr Major must have felt going into the Back to Basics campaign carrying such a secret.

"I suspect he woke up every day wondering if this was going to be the day when his private life was going to be splattered across the newspapers," said the Hartlepool MP.

That must have produced a mixture of "terror and torpor", he added.

Language fallout

In his exchange, Mr Portillo also provoked Mr Blunkett with a reference to his recent controversial call for immigrant families to speak more English in their homes.

"When I was growing up in my house my parents quite often did not speak English to me," he said.

"But I seem now over a period of time to have become assimilated."

And he joked: "It is not my custom to provide a platform for one so far to the right as David Blunkett."

Mr Blunkett later insisted he had been misrepresented and he had only called for English to be spoken alongside immigrants' mother tongue.


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