Labour's Happy Warrior

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The courage of his convictions is something David Blunkett comes by naturally. Blind from birth, sent to a boarding school at four where he was desperately lonely and steered toward becoming a piano tuner, he learned to ride a bike, play cricket (the ball had a bell) and toboggan madly down hills; broken bones were just a cost of doing business. He remembers the smell of his dad's rotting flesh as he slowly died after falling in a vat of boiling water at work, for which his employer refused compensation, driving him and his mother into "bread and dripping" poverty.

Even so, he put himself through university, became a Sheffield city councilor at 22, an M.P. at 40, and shed a left-wing past to become a key ally in Tony Blair's overhaul of the Labour Party. Now, as Home Secretary, he is at the heart of the government's toughest issues: not only crime but immigration and asylum, drugs, British identity, freedom of information and the fight against terror. In a crowd of increasingly Identikit politicians, he stands out to voters as a whole human being, confident in his unvarnished views and permitted by Downing St. to utter them.

His politics defy easy categorization, a tough-love combination of compassion, anger at injustice and old-fashioned Yorkshire uprightness. Critics on the right think he is too enamored of imposing targets on those who deliver government services. Critics on the left detect too much bossiness too, shading into intolerance and a willingness to pander to right-wing populism.

Blunkett has regularly offended many in his own party: saying immigrants should meet "British norms of acceptability," offering Afghans $3,750 to return to rebuild their own country, sending police into a mosque to arrest a family of asylum seekers, suggesting that asylum seekers' children kept in remote accommodation centers would be in danger of "swamping" local schools.

He says he takes no pleasure in offending his colleagues, but is convinced they are out of touch. "I have a particular view that the left has missed the boat in not grasping that unless there is stability and order, progressive politics cannot flourish," he says. The crime bill is for him a good example of where his critics miss the point: "It's very difficult to get a conviction in this country for anything. My upbringing and my constituency tell me there's an audience out there that wants the balance restored." If it is not, he suggests, the hard right will gain.

Late at night and early in the morning he churns through documents in Braille and listens to sped-up tapes of memos and correspondence. His discipline and ambition could one day propel him to Downing St. For now, he must hope his chief rival, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, will let him fund more police and auxiliaries, more probation officers, more cells to absorb more prisoners. He will happily scrap for it all. "He figures he only gets one stab at being Home Secretary," says an aide, "and that he might as well get stuck in."