Byline: ANNE MCELVOY
THIS time, it really is goodbye. David Blunkett walked into Downing Street as an embattled minister hoping, as his aides were repeating desperately, to "draw a line" under the share dealings controversy.
He left with his career in shreds.
The Work and Pensions Secretary has staggered from one DNA-related disaster to the next and now pays the ultimate price, his second resignation from Cabinet in a year.
It is impossible for Mr Blunkett to return in a senior role while Mr Blair remains in office, and his political career may well be over for good. One insider who witnessed Mr Blunkett's arrival in Downing Street noted that despite Mr Blair's personal sympathy for his friend, the mood was "extremely formal" - this time.
There was little tea and sympathy.
The longer-term casualty of all this, however, may be the authority of Tony Blair himself. He profits neither from appearing decisive enough to request Mr Blunkett's departure when it became clear that he had broken the code on outside earnings, nor has he managed to save a minister on whom he was relying to push through one of the most controversial reforms of his third term.
It is an odd call for the Downing Street communications machine to allow this to be presented as if it was entirely Mr Blunkett's decision to go, rather than what the corporate personnel manager might call an "agreed departure".
However one looks at it, Mr Blair is badly damaged by l'affaire Blunkett.
He was brought back very quickly after his resignation this time last year but for one sound reason: that he was one of the few remaining ministers with the heft and bloodymindedness to take through the Commons swingeing cuts in eligibility for incapacity benefit system, an area where MPs are most worried about constituents' backlash and the wrath of the lobby groups.
The symbolism of yet another ebbing Blairite minister is also most inconvenient to a Prime Minister who needs to stamp his authority on a third term and quell speculation about an early departure from Number 10.
The man once regarded for his down-to-earth good sense had become the Peter Mandelson of the late Blair period: the persistent problem child in the Government family.
As one ally of the PM puts it: "It's spookily like Peter. You never knew when he walked through the door what he was going to tell you he'd done now".
And like Mr Mandelson, his going is a personal and a political blow to Mr Blair.
The silence of Mr Blunkett's ministerial colleagues in support of their colleague has been deafening. Many believed that Mr Blair was being unwise in hanging on to his turbulent minister, so that his departure also fuels the impression that Mr Blair is out of touch with his own Cabinet.
Alan Johnson, Mr Blunkett's colleague as Trade Secretary, gave such a minimal pledge of support last night that we wondered how much pressure was applied by Number 10 and how many toenails Mr Johnson is now missing. Charles Clarke, fast emerging as Mr Blunkett's natural heir in the unofficial pecking order around Mr Blair, refused to deliver more than a whisper of support. It would not really matter so much if there were a ready stock of eager replacements gagging to serve in the Blair Cabinet. …