David Blunkett resigned this evening after Sir Alan Budd, the former civil servant appointed to investigate allegations that he intervened in the visa application of the nanny of his former lover, informed him that he had discovered an exchange of emails between his office and that of the Immigration Service.
The education secretary, Charles Clarke, has been appointed as Mr Blunkett's replacement at the Home Office, while Ruth Kelly has joined the cabinet to take over at education.
Political opponents immediately portrayed the resignation as a major blow for the prime minister, Tony Blair. However Mr Blair tonight praised his embattled minister, writing to Mr Blunkett: "You leave government with your integrity intact and your achievements acknowledged by all. You are a force for good in British politics."
Mr Blunkett had come under increasing pressure over allegations that he abused his position as home secretary by intervening in the visa application. An emotional Mr Blunkett told Sky News tonight that the last weeks had been the worst of his life, as a dramatic break-up and paternity battle with former lover Kimberly Quinn finally forced him from office.
Mr Blunkett has been engaged in a high court battle with Mrs Quinn for contact with her son, who Mr Blunkett claims he fathered. It was a fast-tracked visa application for the child's nanny that brought the charges of improper use of his office, which Sir Alan has been investigating. Tonight a tearful Mr Blunkett said that he wanted the child to know in future years that " his father cared enough about him to sacrifice his career". Mr Blunkett said in his resignation later: "I believe these issues would never have been raised had I not decided in September that I could not walk away from my youngest son. I could not live with myself or believe I had done the best for him in the long term if I had abandoned my relationship with him. I only sought continued access to him through the courts, as I made clear two weeks ago, because all other avenues had been denied me."
Mrs Quinn, whose husband Stephen has stood by her throughout the affair, denies that Mr Blunkett is the child's father.
Mr Blunkett steadfastly denied allegations that he had intervened on behalf of the nanny, Leoncia Casalme. He established an inquiry under the former Treasury mandarin Sir Alan to investigate the claim that her residence visa was fast-tracked after he raised it with his civil servants.
In the resignation letter, Mr Blunkett explained: "The key issue has always been whether I used my public office for private benefit. Since these issues were first raised, I have always given my honest recollection of the facts, on the record as I remembered them.
"At that time and subsequently I said that the issue of Ms Casalme's application was not taken up by my office beyond it being read to me initially. These statements have been based on the recollections of myself and the officials in my office at the time.
"Yesterday, Sir Alan Budd told me there had indeed been a fax and an exchange of emails between my office and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate - not based on the application form as originally alleged but on the subsequent letter [informing her of a possible 12-month delay] of which I was always aware but did not remember holding a copy. I have no recollection of dealing with this in any way.
"However, whether or not I asked for any action to be taken is irrelevant to the inference that can be drawn," he said.
Mr Blunkett was initially backed by Mr Blair and Labour MPs, but he saw his support trickle away after the rushed publication of an unauthorised biography by political journalist Stephen Pollard. The book showed him to be extremely critical of his cabinet colleagues. The last straw was the allegation, published in the Daily Mail, that Ms Casalme had received VIP treatment on a second visa application, to holiday in Austria, after Mrs Quinn promised to make a call. Despite a denial by the Austrian ambassador that the process was anything other than routine, the allegation, coupled with the revelation that Mr Blunkett had sung the Fred Astaire song Pick Yourself Up at a parliamentary dinner, finished the home secretary.
Even in the midst of his resignation, Mr Blunkett did not rule out a political comeback at some point in the future.
"I believe in making a difference to people's lives. And in the 30-odd years that I have been in formal politics I think I have contributed along with colleagues to changing the world," he said.