LONDON — It has been a very rough spell for David Blunkett, a top ally of Prime Minister Tony Blair and one of the brightest lights in the Labour Party.
Blunkett, who was born blind and poor in 1947, was viewed until recently as a leading contender to become prime minister after Blair steps down in two years. Charismatic and politically savvy, he held some of the most powerful posts in government, including Home Secretary. He was also known as a close friend and ally of Britain’s Jewish community, lending his name to fund-raising efforts and maintaining close friendships with members of the tight-knit community.
Over the past year, however, those ties have served him poorly. A series of scandals has forced him to step down from two different Cabinet posts. The first involved a secret affair with a married woman. It resulted in the birth of a child who, like the mother, is Jewish. The second involved unauthorized work outside government, including a paid post with a prominent Jewish charity.
The first, more salacious controversy stemmed from his three-year secret affair with the American publisher of Britain’s Spectator, Kimberly Quinn, wife of Vogue publisher Stephen Quinn. After Quinn, who is Jewish, gave birth to a baby boy, DNA tests revealed that Blunkett was the father.
Quinn asked to end the affair, opting to rehabilitate her marriage. Blunkett went to court, insisting that he would be a full parent to his son, William. According to Quinn’s friends, she threatened to ruin Blunkett’s political career if he did not leave her alone.
Eventually it was leaked to the papers that Blunkett, then Home Secretary, had accelerated a visa application for Quinn’s nanny. On December 15 of last year, with an independent inquiry circling around the claims, Blunkett resigned from the Cabinet — though his departure did not end the media’s interest in his private life.
After Blair won re-election in May of this year, he did not forget his old friend. Blair brought Blunkett back into the Cabinet, this time as the Work and Pensions Secretary. But in September, 29-year-old estate agent Sally Anderson stepped forward to sell her story of meeting Blunkett in a West End nightclub. The affair led to a drip feed of letters and revelations about his business dealings during his six months outside of government, including a $26,000 to $35,000 advisory job with the Jewish charity World ORT. It appeared that he had accepted the post without consulting Parliament’s independent advisory committee on business ethics.
This time Blair himself ordered Blunkett to go. On November 2, the Secretary resigned.
Through his ups and downs, Blunkett has enjoyed good relations with the Jewish community — not uncommon for Labour politicians, even with the hostile criticism of Israel in some left-wing British circles. What stands out is that Blunkett is a non-Jewish politician with a Jewish son.
At a gala dinner last month for the Friends of Haifa University, at which he was honored, Blunkett noted that his son — the one that he had with Quinn — attends a Jewish nursery and has been teaching him about the Jewish holidays.
Presented with an honorary degree, Blunkett thanked the Jewish community for its “extraordinary support” when “things got difficult” in his personal and professional life. It had been the Jewish community “that stood by me, and I won’t let you down.”
“I feel deeply honored when friends from the Jewish community are prepared to welcome me,” he said. “I feel like one of the family.”
A World ORT spokesman confirmed that the former home secretary had assisted the charity with its “international work and future development in the early part of this year.” Blunkett listed the ORT role in the Register of Members’ Interests, published in April, though he mistakenly listed its name as the Organisation for Research and Technology instead of the Organisation for Rehabilitation through Training.
But the ORT flap was not the issue that attracted the attention of the British public. Instead it was Blunkett’s relationship with DNA Bioscience, the paternity-testing firm, that prompted his resignation.
On April 21, Blunkett quietly joined the board of what was then a little-known company called DNA Bioscience. He resigned two weeks later after Blair tapped him to be Work and Pensions Secretary. The same day that he became a director of the company, Blunkett bought 12 shares in DNA Bioscience for $26,000 — 3% of the company’s value. He put them in trust for his three adult sons. If, as expected, the company goes public next year, those shares could be worth about $490,000. Blunkett has pointedly declined to state the salary he was earning as a director.
The recent resignation appears to have brought an end to Blunkett’s political career.
It has been a long journey for Blunkett, who was sent away to a school for blind children at age 4. When he was 12, his father, Arthur, fell into boiling water at work. He died a month later from his injuries; the gas board resisted paying compensation (because his father had decided to work beyond retirement age), and the family was driven into poverty. Not surprisingly, Blunkett showed an early interest in socialist politics.
He went on to study at the Royal National College for the Blind and then at Sheffield University before becoming Sheffield’s youngest-ever city councilor at age 22.
Within 10 years he had risen to become the leader of Sheffield City Council, and he celebrated by cutting bus fares and hoisting a red flag over the town hall. In 1987, he became Britain’s third blind Member of Parliament when he won the seat representing Sheffield Brightside.
In 1990 he divorced his first wife, Ruth Mitchell. They have three children together.
After Blair took office in 1997, Blunkett became the Education and Employment Secretary. He steamrolled the Treasury into releasing considerable new funds for schools, and pushed hard on literacy.
He continued to succeed, until his affair with Quinn became public.
The Sun supported him, arguing that he had put his trust in someone who had savagely turned on him and who could be accused of blackmail. The newspaper argued that he did not deserve to have an outstanding political career destroyed by a “vindictive” woman who led him up the garden path.
The London Times staked out a different position.
“Most of all, David Blunkett is Samson: shorn of sense and judgment by his married Delilah,” the newspaper declared in an editorial. “A woman did this to him. His flaws are all his own, and were on display right through his fierce and occasionally inhumane career as Education and, later, Home Secretary; but it was when he let humanity bite him in the heel that his lifelong armor began to rust and fall off. First love got him, then the arrogance of power — over the nanny visa — then the loneliness that drives a middle-aged man to Annabel’s, and finally and least characteristically, the greed for quick money to fight rich Mrs. Quinn.”