ID cards, Blunkett, a nanny and a mad Blair

by Guy Kewney | posted on 16 December 2004

The only technologists who favour Government ID cards are those corporations who would like to have their R&D budgets funded for the next five years by the taxpayers of a rich country - and everybody else hates them. Including voters in the UK. Could this be, at least partly, why David Blunkett ran out of friends?

Guy Kewney

According to those behind the scenes, this isn't as crazy an idea as it may sound at first. Consider:

1) Blunkett almost certainly did nothing wrong over the nanny and her visa - he's gone because he was increasingly unpopular with anybody who mattered, except the Prime Minister

2) The Conservative opposition has made it clear that whatever their Leader thinks, they don't support ID cards

3) Popular opinion is heavily against ID cards

4) It's becoming clear that bringing the enabling legislation forward to before the election, has made it a liability

OK, let's delve deeper.

The strength of public feeling against ID cards, especially with biometric components, is not doubted by any member of the public. The "research" which appeared to show an 80% support for it was carried out on a specific section of the population of Britain. They had to be (amongst other things):

1) not concerned enough about privacy to register their phones with the Telephone Preference Service (two million households are)

2) prepared to take a cold call and answer questions about privacy (only 25% of those called were)

That being the case (and being something most MPs are well aware of, in both the major parties) why did Blunkett bring forward the enabling legislation?

"Basically, because he's so straightforward and honest," was the view of insiders this week. "He's a consummate politician, of course - but hiding the legislation behind the election is foreign to his nature."

Well, is he straightforward and honest? He says so, but then he would say that, wouldn't he ... so what do others say? Basically, they agree. Not necessarily in front of the cameras, where they say that he "can't be trusted" if he's prepared to fast-track visa applications for friends.

So, did he?

Almost certainly, not. What is blatantly obvious from the information that has already emerged, is that Blunket's staff were lying to him. They said: "There are no delays in visa applications." He then found, through personal experience (his mistress wanted a foreign nanny, and his staff were telling her "a year") that this wasn't true. So, to cover up the delay problems, they swept the nanny under the carpet - and when her name came up again, they didn't even bother to tell Blunkett about it, but just "fast-tracked" her to avoid getting caught. I've spoken to enough people who say: "No, honesty is his worst fault" to feel that the dishonesty comes from elsewhere - not Blunkett himself.

Why were they lying to him?

"He's a terrifying man," said one insider, candidly. "He shouts at them, throws folders and books around the office, abuses them to their faces, and generally they would do anything to avoid attracting his attention. Normally, there's a rule in the Civil Service about not answering questions that journalists don't ask - but with Blunkett, any number of Fleet Street and TV reporters will tell you that they get calls from inside the Home Office saying: 'Fancy a drink?' just so they can complain about him."

Everybody agrees he's arrogant, and makes enemies. So the question is; are some of these enemies the anti-ID card people? - and if so, how many of them are important enough to swing the balance?

The problem the plan faces is simple: cost. The estimated cost of a card is being described as around £200 - but that hides the cost of setting up the database, the cost of buying and setting up the retina scanners, and the cost of developing an integrated system that will tie it all together. Simon Davies, chairman of Privacy International, estimates £3,000 per card as the real cost to the tax payer. It could easily be far more, because all the technology work is unproven, and essentially an open cheque for the companies who bid for it to fund their research.

That wouldn't bother David Blunkett; he was in love with the idea. But Gordon Brown isn't his best friend. Tony Blair is his best friend, but Tony Blair isn't Chancellor of the Exchequer. Brown simply refused, point blank, to fund the ID card.

That meant that the card becomes a stealth tax.

So, what on earth was Michael Howard thinking? He has set out his stall to support a stealth tax project, which is vastly unpopular with his party and his MPs and the voting public! Worse still, he's done it in a way which has utterly infuriated his supporters; he's deliberated the subject in camera with a few of his inner circle, and has mis-represented the feelings of the rest, and sprung the decision on them. They are, quite simply, furious. The result is that several of the senior Tories have gone public with their opposition.

So Tony Blair, the only person left who has a personal stake in the ID card proposal, now faces a choice. He must be pretty mad about what happened to his friend, Blunkett, but just how mad is he?

He didn't want to have this issue in the public eye before the election; and now, he's lost one of his most important Party allies from his Cabinet. That would make anybody mad - but would it make you insane?

Does he insist on pushing ahead with the legislation, to demonstrate his loyalty to his old friend?

Or does he recognise that if he does, he'll have both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats making it an election issue, when he would have preferred to smuggle it in after winning?

Blair has many enemies. It's not unlikely that some of them will have seen the "nanny" affair as a splendid opportunity to separate him from his powerful ally, Blunkett. And it seems quite possible that Blunkett's mania for ID cards was one of the more conspicuous causes of his increasing unpopularity.

"It's not the reason he went," said Simon Davies, "but it's certainly part of the reason he couldn't stay."

What now?

If the history of ID cards in other countries is any guide, the newly appointed Home Secretary (an "arrogant buffoon" in the words of one insider) will express public support for continuing with the process, but behind the scenes, will probably institute an "internal investigation" which means that the back burner will be switched on to "simmer" until at least after the election.

A similar event in Canada, where the evangelist supporting ID cards fell from power, led to the legislation being dropped. Something analogous happened in New Zealand. In Australia, the Government pushed ahead, and very nearly got pushed out.

The moral for Blunkett appears to be that if you count on one important friend then, like a fox who relies on one earth to hide in, you will be trapped when your enemies block the earth.

But the moral for Government seems to be that people who fall in love with ID card schemes are indulging in a career-limiting hobby. A hobby is a great thing, as long as you can afford to buy your own toys. ID cards are the most expensive toys a boy can fall in love with.

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