Tony Blair's government was left staggering months from a general election Wednesday night after the prime minister's hard-hitting ally, David Blunkett, resigned as home secretary.
Blunkett's decision anticipated condemnation from the inquiry by a former senior civil servant Sir Alan Budd of his handling of a British residence visa for his then-lover's nanny. Catching Cabinet colleagues by surprise, he decided to fall on his sword only after being told by Sir Alan on Tuesday that a sequence of forgotten, but potentially compromising, faxes and e-mails would not allow him to deliver a clean bill of health.
It was a dramatic end to one of the most tenacious political careers. As a child born blind in a poor home, Blunkett, 57, rose to hold one of the most important and demanding offices in the state -- and lost it for love.
Though the Cabinet's combative education secretary, Charles Clarke, was almost immediately promoted to fill his shoes, members of parliament on all sides in the UK House of Commons were acutely aware that the prime minister had also sustained a blow.
Soon after accepting that Peter Mandelson, now an EU commissioner, could not return to Cabinet for a third time, Blair has lost another close political and personal ally, almost certainly hastening the day when he will hand over power to the present UK finance minister Gordon Brown.
In emotional TV interviews after the news was confirmed shortly before 6pm, Blunkett made clear that he had risked -- and halted -- his career for love. He refused to abandon claims to his putative son by Kimberly Quinn, the American publisher of the London-based Spectator magazine, after she ended their clandestine two-year affair.
Friends of Quinn made charges that he had abused his official position during the doomed affair -- including use of his office car and official transport and, crucially, had helped to fast-track a visa for Quinn's nanny, Leoncia Casalme. Blunkett denied all impropriety.
With evident bitterness he said last night: "I misunderstood what we had. I misunderstood that someone [Mrs Quinn] could do this, not just to me, but to a little one as well" in the couple's fight over paternity and custody of what he called "that little lad" he loved.
In an exchange of letters last night Blair spoke of his great regret and called Blunkett an outstanding minister who had changed the country for the better.
"You leave government with your integrity intact and your achievements acknowledged by all. You are a force for good in British politics and can take great pride in what you have done to improve the lives of people in this country," wrote Blair.
In his own statement Blunkett said he did not remember the crucial fax and e-mails about the visa or dealing with it.
"However, whether or not I asked for any action to be taken is irrelevant to the inference that can be drawn." Refusing to do what he called "the easy thing -- hide behind my officials", he protested his integrity and accepted responsibility.
Though reports that Cabinet colleagues and backbench MPs were withdrawing support three weeks into the drama were exaggerated, Blunkett was looking like a liability, despite his central role in Labour's "security and opportunity" campaign for an election likely to be held this spring. Senior ministers, many of them attacked by an "arrogant" Blunkett in a new biography, were angry with him.