Tony Blair has done more in this reshuffle than he's given credit for

While some may worry about disappointing expectations, the Prime Minister himself won't
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The Independent Culture
DIFFERENT TIMES, different outcome. When Margaret Thatcher had her second-year reshuffle, in September 1981, the blood flowed freely over the Downing Street carpet.

Into the new Cabinet came two future stars, Norman Tebbit and Nigel Lawson. Ian Gilmour was - according to her boss - "huffy" to be sacked; Christopher Soames "equally angry - but in a grander way" Mark Carlisle stepped down as Education Secretary "with courtesy and good humour". But the most intriguing case was that of Jim Prior, who, like Mo Mowlam, had generated press coverage saying that he did not want to leave his present department - Employment.

According to the former Prime Minister's own account: "Jim could not intimidate me by threatening... So I called his bluff and offered him the post of Northern Ireland [the very post that, in wholly different circumstances, Dr. Mowlam was later so publicly reluctant to leave]. He asked for time to consider and after some agonising and some telephoning he accepted my offer..."

The contrast between September 1981 and July 1999's bloodless - at least at Cabinet level - reshuffle serves, on the face of it, only to underline the perceived wimpishness of the one completed yesterday. The single-minded and sometimes ruthless focus on the job at hand of Margaret Thatcher's successor is often compared to hers. However, not only have been there no Cabinet sackings, but Dr Mowlam, unlike Jim Prior, got her way.

Nevertheless, the contrast is a good deal more superficial than it looks. Dr Mowlam first. Certainly, given her preference for running a department rather than as an "enforcer", conciliating between other departments - as she had sought to conciliate for two years between the Northern Ireland parties - was made more difficult to fulfil because of Frank Dobson's reluctance to step down to solve Tony Blair's acute problem over the London mayoralty.

But what really ruled out a move for Dr Mowlam were the events that unfolded in Northern Ireland in late June and early July. First, her own inclination to go was predicated on the assumption that the talks would succeed; with devolution under way the job of Northern Ireland Secretary would have been a lesser one. From Mr Blair's point of view - and despite his irritation from time to time that his services are so chronically required in Northern Ireland because of Dr Mowlam's poor relations with the Ulster Unionists - moving her was made much more difficult after it became known that Mr Trimble wanted her replaced, preferably by Peter Mandelson. If that was what he wanted, then allowing it to be known was easily the worst way of securing it.

The contrast between the Prior circumstances then and the Mowlam ones now is by no means the only difference from 1981. Another, conveniently forgotten, is that Tony Blair's Cabinet has already undergone some quite significant changes - seeing the removal of around a third of its members - to the Cabinet that he appointed on 2 May 1997. Not only did he provoke gasps of surprise by the extent of his reshuffle last summer, but he had another forced on him last December by the resignations of Peter Mandelson and Geoffrey Robinson.

Yet another difference is entirely political. Tony Blair has not had to do what Margaret Thatcher had to, and impose her will on the Cabinet in mid-flight. He largely did it before the general election. The sackings of Gilmour, Soames and Carlisle and the demotion of Prior were part of her concerted effort to break up a "wet" or left-leaning cabal that was actively - if not very effectively - working to undermine the central tenets of her economic policy.

By contrast (and it may not be for ever), few if any prime ministers before Blair have presided at any time, let alone at this stage of the premiership, over a Cabinet so free of overt - or even latent - ideological division.

And finally there is a third and equally important difference. There is not, to put it politely, a huge cadre of heavyweight Ministers of State who are clamouring by their talent and experience for a place at the Cabinet table. Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers - with Mr Mandelson equivalents, in terms of affinity of outlook with the Prime Minister, of Lawson and Tebbit - were already in the Cabinet by the time Mr Blair came to yesterday's reshuffle.

Indeed the new Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy, who had proved beyond doubt in Northern Ireland that he has "bottom" - that elusive quality so admired by the older generation of politicians - was one of the very few who was clearly ready to join the Cabinet. (And Wales is by no means a non-job. First the Welsh assembly does not yet, thank goodness, make law. And secondly Welsh Labour has become a political disaster zone after Mr Blair's imposition of the uncharismatic Alan Michael on the Assembly).

But what Blair has started to do with his changes to the lower ranks is to create that cadre, either by widening the experience of some of the more promising ministers of state. These include Ian McCartney, in a key co-ordination post, Geoff Hoon, Jeff Rooker, Brian Wilson, Lord (Gus) Macdonald, Peter Hain, Paul Boateng and Lord Williams. He has promoted or transferred parliamentary under-secretaries such as Patricia Hewitt, Charles Clarke, both modernisers since the early Eighties, along with Kate Hoey, Baroness Symons and John Spellar; and brought into the Government backbenchers with weight and knowledge (and they are not always the youngest): Malcolm Wicks, Chris Mullin, Baroness Scotland and Alan Johnson among others. Interestingly, this is not merely a collection of young Blairite clones. Several have experience outside Parliament and all are what could in the broadest sense be described as political grown-ups.

There are, of course, other things to say about the reshuffle; the press has at least partly itself to blame in raising the expectations for this reshuffle, though not quite as much as Downing Street is claiming; but it is a safe bet that while some around Mr Blair may worry about disappointing those expectations, the Prime Minister himself won't. There has been a marked shift away from men and towards women in the Government since May 1997; some of John Prescott's allies have been dispersed, making the DETR somewhat less of a Prescottite redoubt - though those in Blair's circle deny that was the intention; Gordon Brown will have a strong ally in Lord Macdonald in the highly sensitive Transport portfolio; there could be a further reshuffle at Christmas, which would see the return of Peter Mandelson or even the mayoral candidacy of Frank Dobson; and so on.

The common reshuffle cliche that isn't appropriate is that this is the Cabinet with which Blair will fight the next election. But the changes he made yesterday will help him form that Cabinet. It is a more far-reaching reshuffle than it looks at first sight.