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Newsmaker-Blunkett Beat Adversity to Become Blair Star

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from Reuters, June 9, 2001.

LONDON- Britain's new Interior Minister David Blunkett was told at school to study piano tuning -- his teachers thought that was the best a blind boy could hope to do.

Blunkett refused, went to college and 40 years later the teachers were dancing to his tune when Prime Minister Tony Blair made him Education Minister, tasked with driving up standards in Britain's run-down and overcrowded schools.

He was widely seen as a star of Blair's first administration and was rewarded on Friday with promotion in the cabinet reshuffle which followed Blair's second election landslide.

Some believe he has what it takes to become Britain's first blind prime minister. Blunkett dismisses leadership talk, saying Britons are not ready for a blind premier. But his denials are not always entirely convincing.

"It's really up to me to continue to show that someone can do it, as others are doing in all sorts of walks of life now," he said in a radio interview.

Blunkett's four years as Secretary of State for Education and Employment put him in the spotlight as the man Blair depended on to deliver progress in his government's declared top priority of "education, education, education." Aides found him plain-speaking and practical and Blair saw him as a safe pair of hands, bringing higher standards in primary schools and performance-related pay for teachers.

Critics said his own triumph over adversity made him insensitive to problems facing teachers and pupils. His social instincts are deeply conservative and he was reported as saying he would make his predecessor at the Home Office (Interior Ministry) Jack Straw -- whose policies often appeared aimed at outflanking the right-wing Conservative opposition -- "look like a liberal."

"My own priorities -- apart from listening and learning -- will be crime, particularly violent crime, and those who are trafficking in drugs and people and weaponry," Blunkett told reporters on S aturday.

EARLY STRUGGLES

David Blunkett was born on June 6, 1947 and was sent away to a special boarding school for the blind when he was just four.

His father, a gasworks foreman, fell into a vat of boiling water when Blunkett was 12 and died of his burns a month later, leaving his family struggling to make ends meet.

Blunkett left school early, studying at night courses and delaying his university studies until he was a mature student.

At 22 he became the youngest-ever member of Sheffield council, in northern England, and rose to become a prominent council leader challenging the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

He entered parliament in 1987. His dog Lucy guides him through the corridors of power and sleeps at his feet in the House of Commons -- he says the debates are too boring to keep her awake.

Using Braille and tapes, and helped by what appears to be a powerful memory, he absorbs the barrage of information which ministers face on a daily basis. He reportedly often has a quicker grasp of cabinet issues than his colleagues, sorting information in his head while other ministers are still leafing through their notes.

A loyal Blairite, he manages to remain an "on-message" team player while retaining his own distinctive public profile.

And Britons should be wary of taking him at face value when he says they are not ready to be lead by a blind man.

In the early 1970s, a Conservative education minister was busy telling anyone who listened that Britain was not ready for woman prime minister. Her name? Margaret Thatcher.

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