· by RAY FLEMING AT 8.15am London time yesterday morning the following exchange took place on BBC Radio 4*s Today programme between Home Secretary Charles Clarke and interviewer John Humphrys:
Humphrys: Why is it that the Prime Minister acknowledges that David Blunkett broke ministerial rules but is standing by him? The PM sets out the rules, says they must be observed, says Labour is whiter than white, but doesn't enforce them. Clarke: People should operate the rules. I've talked to David Blunkett. He regrets not doing what he should have done. Humphrys: He broke the rules and he's still in a job. Clarke: Indeed. And I think he should be.
THREE hours after that interview took place Mr Blunkett went to No 10 Downing Street and resigned from the government. The Prime Minister accepted his resignation “reluctantly” and a further two hours later told the House of Commons that Mr Blunkett had left office “with no stain of impropriety against him whatsoever”. In this space yesterday I suggested that the Prime Minister's willingness to tolerate Mr Blunkett's unreliable and opportunistic behaviour was a more serious matter than the mess his minister had got himself into. For the second time Mr Blair's judgement about David Blunkett has been proved wrong and yet he can still tell the House of Commons that no impropriety has been involved. This tells us a lot about the ethical flaw at the heart of Mr Blair's government. Principles give way to pragmatism. No 10 Downing Street issued a statement saying that although Mr Blunkett had broken the ministerial code of conduct, “it did not affect his ability to do his job.” Anyone who believes that can believe anything. Just as Mr Clarke can cheerfully say on national radio that although Mr Blunkett has broken the rules he should stay in his job. In short, anything goes, if it suits Labour's needs and the electorate can be persuaded to swallow it. Perhaps Gordon Brown will take a tougher ethical line with his ministers. If so, the sooner he takes over the better. But the most urgent need is for a revived Conservative opposition with a leader able to expose the shallowness of Tony Blair's pretensions.


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