David Blunkett, Martin Narey and the Blunkett diaries
In today's (17 Oct 06) Times, Martin Narey replies to criticism of his performance as head of the Prison Service at the time of a riot at Lincoln jail in 2002. The criticism is made by the then home secretary, David Blunkett, in his diary ("The Blunkett Tapes"), shortly to be published in book form and recently serialised all over the newspapers and on radio and television. Narey's blistering attack on Blunkett, more damaging and revealing than anything similar than I can remember in the case of a still active politician, is absolutely essential reading.
Blunkett has already categorically denied that he spoke and behaved in the way described by Narey. But on the BBC Radio's Today programme this morning, Narey said that although he hadn't kept a diary, on this occasion he had made full notes of the telephone conversation at the time, that he had given an account of it to the then Permanent Secretary at the home office, and that he had spoken subsequently to Blunkett's private secretary about it (to warn that if Blunkett really wanted the army called in to deal with the prison riot and was really prepared to contemplate the use of machine-guns with the attendant likelihood of loss of life, he would first have to find a new head of the Prison Service). Narey also said that two (three?) prison governors had been with him when he was talking to Blunkett on the telephone and that they would vouch for Narey's account of his end of the conversation and of his immediate reactions.
It seems to me almost inconceivable that Narey would have risked publishing an exaggerated or downright false account of Blunkett's behaviour and words on this occasion without being able to cite corroboration in his contemporaneous record of them and the evidence of those to whom he spoke at the time. Presumably Blunkett's private secretary at the time would also have been listening in and could be expected to challenge Narey's account if it had been incorrect. On the balance of probabilities, if not proven beyond reasonable doubt, and unless fresh evidence emerges to the contrary, it seems impossible not to believe Narey's story or to disbelieve Blunkett's denial.
The Blunkett Tapes in any case amount to implied corroboration of Nary's charges. They portray a man prone to violent losses of temper, to intemperate and often obviously unwarranted attacks on his own officials, to vicious (and subsequently regretted) ciriticisms of his ministerial and other party colleagues, to extreme bouts of cloying sentimentality and self-pity, to chaotic and irresponsible misbehaviour in his private life, to a careless disregard for the basic principles of civil liberties and the functions of the judiciary, to other major lapses of judgement, to a virulent form of populism that time and again put placating the right-wing tabloid press above all other factors in determining policy, to an attitude to the prime minister verging on the obsequious, and to the delusion that unquestioning loyalty to Tony Blair should invariably override any obligation to address the rights and wrongs of any particular issue, including most conspicuously Iraq. That Blunkett should have imagined for one second that publication of these diaries, even with all the hindsight and retrospective editing to which he has subjected them, could rescue his reputation from ruin, is the ultimate demonstration of the delusional state that he inhabits. It is tragic that he evidently lacked even one trusted friend willing to brave his wrath by telling him not to dream for a moment of publishing his tapes, but rather to burn them.
It's impossible not to feel sympathy and even admiration for a man who overcame such disability and such difficult home circumstances to rise so close to the top of the political greasy pole, but who then saw his career ruined by his own excesses and defects. This is the real stuff of tragedy. David Blunkett describes vividly in the diaries the physical and mental toll that his achievements took on him: how he sometimes felt he was going mad, or suffering from clinical depression; the exhaustion and the loneliness. His successes seem to have been won at the cost of an unbending belief in his own rectitude and judgement, however damning the frequent evidence to the contrary. As a result he continually reopens his own old wounds in the doomed attempt at self-justification, even over behaviour and events which manifestly condemn him.
The question has to be asked: how did a man so irremediably flawed in character, judgement and behaviour come to be appointed a minister, when his crippling defects must have been known to the prime minister, other political colleagues, senior officials, and many others? Once appointed, how and why was he kept in office long after his unsuitability for it had become obvious? When forced by his own folly to resign, what on earth possessed the prime minister to re-appoint him to Cabinet rank within just a few months? Did Blair really tell Blunkett, as alleged in the diary, that re-appointment as a Cabinet minister would be "therapeutic" for him?
Tony Blair has some explaining to do, on this as on rather a lot of other issues.
Update (18 October): Today's Times carries impressive support for Martin Narey's account of the responses to the Lincoln prison riot, and further calls into question David Blunkett's self-serving version of events:
Extracts from a letter by Richard Childs, former Chief Constable of Lincolnshire Police, on David Blunkett
“I have read conflicting accounts of the way David Blunkett and Martin Narey behaved on the night of the riot at Lincoln . . .
“As I was there on the ground, I am qualified to give a view about how the Prison Service and Martin Narey behaved. My officers were, after all, containing the situation whilst the Prison Service made its decisions. Had there been any ‘dithering’ I would have been the first to be aware of it and forced to act.
“There was no dithering . . . the only way to resolve the ‘crisis’ was in the way in which Martin Narey and Phil Wheatley resolved it.
“Comparing the colourful recent past of Mr Blunkett and his repeated personal and professional ‘challenges’ with the measured, considered and mature approach I saw in Martin Narey and his senior and junior colleagues at a time of high drama, I know whose version of events I accept. In addition, I know who I would prefer to be in charge at a time of ‘crisis’ — and it certainly is not David Blunkett.”
The Times quotes other participants in events described in Blunkett's diary as contradicting the Blunkett version of them and rejecting his harsh criticisms of the way others conducted themselves at the time. For example, —
Mike Granatt[,the former head of the Government’s information service], who was at the heart of the Government’s unit for dealing with civil crises, is the second former top civil servant to question Mr Blunkett’s version of events in Whitehall. Mr Blunkett describes in his diaries a meeting at Downing Street in February 2003 to assess the threat of an attack on Heathrow at which he raised a series of questions. He also describes a meeting in January 2003 involving Special Branch and MI5 about an alleged ricin plot at which he said people were in a “right old panic”. But Mr Granatt, who attended both meetings, said last night: “I simply don’t recognise what he is talking about.” Mr Granatt added: “He rationalised everything into, ‘He was the only one who was right’. It is interesting that eventually we did exactly what he argued against.”
And a senior Cabinet minister is quoted as saying that he fully accepted Narey's account of Blunkett's behaviour over the Lincoln prison riots:
[He]said that they [sic] fully accepted Mr Narey’s account, which rang true given Mr Blunkett’s inclination to panic in tight situations.
And this man was home secretary.