» Wednesday, November 2, 2005

David Blunkett and the reshuffle

The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) told journalists that the Prime Minister had appointed John Hutton as the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He did not anticipate further reshuffle announcements this week.

Asked what instruction the Prime Minster had given to John Hutton about his new portfolio, the PMOS said that he did not brief on conversations between the Prime Minister and his Ministers. The Prime Minister had spelt out his view at PMQs today about what needed to happen with Incapacity Benefit and so on. Asked if the Prime Minister had dismissed or intimated in any way that he wanted David Blunkett to go, the PMOS said that David Blunkett had himself said that was not the case. David Blunkett had set out the sequence of events. He had called Downing Street at 8am. He first came to see the Prime Minister at about 9.15am.

This meant he was going to be late for the select committee, but he still wanted to attend. It was pretty clear where his mind was, but the Prime Minister wanted to be absolutely sure that he was certain about his decision so they agreed to resume after the select committee. Unfortunately by the time David Blunkett got to the select committee it had decided to adjourn the session. Once the conversation had been concluded back at Downing Street he, the PMOS had come to the House of Commons to brief journalists.

Asked why some members of the Work and Pensions Select Committee seemed to think that the select committee meeting had been cancelled because No10 had told the chairman the David Blunkett had resigned, the PMOS said that all he could do was tell them that happened in Downing street which was that we were watching whilst 24 hour news said that David Blunkett had resigned whilst thinking that it was not the case, yet. We thought that was where it was headed but we did not know that for sure. Therefore we were not in a position to phone people and say they were wrong because it could have turned out, as it happened to, that they would be right. They were simply premature. The PMOS said he was not aware of what conversations took place with Mr. Rooney, but the sequence of events that took place were as he himself had set out.

Asked if the Prime Minister had spoken to David Blunkett before they had met this morning, the PMOS said no. Asked if the Prime Minister had asked David Blunkett to change his mind, the PMOS pointed journalists to the Prime Minister’s remarks at PMQs where he had made it clear that he would rather David Blunkett had not resigned. Equally, it was clear where David Blunkett was going. Given the difficulties that we all knew about it was natural that you wanted to have a prolonged conversation rather than a short one given the circumstances. This had not been possible because David Blunkett had wanted to do the right thing and attend the select committee session and then come back to No10. This was how the sequence of events happened. Unfortunately people had interpreted his delay in going to the select committee as something, which at the time was premature.

Asked if it was not certain at the end of the first meeting whether David Blunkett would resign, PMOS said that the fact that there was a conversation to be resumed gave an indication of where we were, despite the fact that we had seen it the TV before it was in fact the case. David Blunkett had said it best at his press conference when he said you knew when it was time to go. He had reached that point and conveyed it to the Prime Minister. Reluctantly the Prime Minister had accepted that. In some ways it was no more complicated than that.

Asked if the Prime Minister’s reluctant acceptance had in any way been relief, the PMOS said he hoped he had been reflecting where the Prime Minister had been all week. That was that he accepted that David Blunkett had made a mistake in not notifying the Advisory Committee. He believed, however that that mistake should be seen in perspective and that it did not amount to corruption or anything like it. Therefore he believed that in itself this was not enough to warrant dismissal. However the Prime Minster had to recognise that the Secretary of State had concluded that he was no longer able to do his job because of the accumulative effect of these kinds of allegations, no matter how many times he rebutted them. Therefore the Prime Minister had to respect that Secretary of State’s view. This was the position that the Prime Minister reluctantly came to. It was clear after the first meeting where his mind was settling, but the whole point of coming back for a further discussion was to be absolutely sure that he was clear in his mind.

Asked what significance, if any, had the Prime Minister given to the further overnight revelations concerning Mr Blunkett, the PMOS said that David Blunkett had addressed those at his press conference so he would not go over that, as it was matter for him. The Prime Minister’s view this morning remained that he did not believe that David Blunkett had done anything that warranted dismissal. Asked if the Prime Minister felt that he was being distracted from carrying out his goal of reforming the public sector by a media onslaught, the PMOS said there was a balance, that he had tried to strike this week, between on the one hand answering legitimate questions about what had happened and on the other keeping our eye on the big picture. This big picture was education reform, the health service, incapacity benefit and so on. These were the issues that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet were focused on. At the same time you had to deal with events like these as we had done today.

Asked about the Cabinet Secretary’s inquiry and whether the Prime Minister had been speaking at PMQs from that evidence when he had said David Blunkett was leaving without a stain on his character, the PMOS said that the Cabinet Secretary had, at the request of both David Blunkett and the Prime Minister, provided clarification of the application of the Ministerial Code.

Therefore the Prime Minster was grateful for that. As he had said at PMQs nobody could be under any doubt now about the interpretation of the Ministerial Code. That was a good thing. The Prime Minister would be the first to say that it was for the Prime Minister to make the judgement about whether a Minister should be dismissed or not. He had exercised that judgement and had come to the conclusion that he should not be. David Blunkett however for his own reasons had decided that it was better that he went. David Blunkett had quoted from the Cabinet Secretary’s letter. People should speak to the Cabinet Office about that.

Asked what role the Chancellor had in choosing John Hutton, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had consulted his colleagues. Asked whether David Blunkett would get a second tax-free lump sum on leaving, the PMOS said that whatever the normal rules were they would be applied. Asked if he would keep his grace and favour car and apartment, the PMOS said that all those consequentials would be worked through. Asked who would replace John Hutton, the PMOS said that further announcements would be made in due course.

Asked if Alistair Campbell was involved in this given his visibility on TV commentary today, the PMOS said not that he was aware of. He was a free citizen who was available to appear on whatever shows he wanted to or that wanted him. Put to him that given the Prime Minister did not want David Blunkett to leave whether he would want him to comeback, the PMOS said that David Blunkett had dealt with that himself by saying that he did not see himself coming back to Cabinet.

Briefing took place at 14:00 | Search for related news

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