Ashdown moves first amid reshuffle fever

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JOHN MAJOR will today carry out a long-awaited mid-term reconstruction of his government that will transfuse new blood into the Cabinet, see the departure of about a dozen ministers and install a new chairman of the Conservative Party.

Westminster was yesterday paralysed by reshuffle speculation as Paddy Ashdown sought to steal a march on the Prime Minister by reshaping his own front-bench team. To add further spice in a week of high political drama, it emerged that the secret report by government inspectors on share dealing allegations against Lord Archer had finally been delivered to Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade.

Mr Ashdown's own reshuffle, which promoted Menzies Campbell into the key role of foreign affairs spokesman, was deliberately timed in anticipation of the certain election of Tony Blair as Labour leader tomorrow.

The Liberal Democrat leader's attempt to create an approximation to Labour's Shadow Cabinet out of just 23 MPs sees a new 'leader's committee', to meet once a fortnight under the chairmanship of Mr Ashdown, and eight 'team leaders'. Under the moves, designed to help Mr Ashdown to shake off his 'one-man band' image, Mr Campbell, the popular defence spokesman, will take on a wider and higher profile role as leader of a combined foreign affairs and defence team.

While Mr Campbell was clearly delighted with his appointment, the changes see Alan Beith, the former Treasury spokesman, moved to home affairs, and Robert Maclennan sacked from his former job as home affairs spokesman - although he gets a seat on the leader's committee. Mr Beith is replaced by Malcolm Bruce.

The reshuffle, originally planned for later in the year, revealed some oddities - and some signs of haste. Education, one of the Liberal Democrats' key campaigning issues, gets no team leader, but will form part of the community and urban affairs portfolio to be led by Simon Hughes.

The party has three female MPs, but none was mentioned in the original announcement. Baroness Seear was later added to the list as the Lords' representative on the leader's committee.

Meanwhile, there were clear signs within government ranks of a late but sharp swing of opinion from the Tory centre right against the widely canvassed candidacy of David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, as party chairman. However, he remained among a wide field that included at least three of the Cabinet contenders: Jeremy Hanley and Jonathan Aitken, both Ministers of State at the Ministry of Defence, and Brian Mawhinney, Minister of State at Health. Both the latter were also being touted as possible Chief Secretaries to the Treasury.

Michael Portillo, the right wing's young pretender, was expected to move to a spending department. Stephen Dorrell and possibly Sir George Young were seen as potential Cabinet entrants.

A clutch of ministers including Tim Sainsbury were expected to retire of their own accord in changes to the middle ranks that were also expected to see the departure of Nicholas Scott, the Minister for Disabled People.

Although Lord Archer had been discounted as a possible chairman well before reports on the Anglia TV share dealings, there have been suggestions in Whitehall - fuelled by Mr Major's attendance at his summer party last weekend - that he might have been in line for another post, possibly in the Department of Heritage.

The DTI last night confirmed that Mr Heseltine had received the report on Lord Archer, leaving the Tory peer, who has vigorously denied accusations of insider dealing, on a knife-edge over whether it would lead to his being cleared in time to be included in Mr Major's reshaped administration.

The DTI, however, did little to encourage speculation that Mr Heseltine would complete his deliberations on the report overnight by saying that it would have to consider 'carefully' both the findings of the inspectors and the 'supporting evidence'.

Mr Blair is expected to win the Labour leadership outright on the first ballot with well over half the total votes from three sections of the electoral college. Although the supporters of Margaret Beckett insisted the deputy leadership contest was 'too close to call', Mr Prescott was increasingly viewed as the likely narrow winner.