Blair 'low' after poll snub and Howard's triumph

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Tony Blair was reported to be "very low" yesterday after one of his most testing weeks since becoming Labour leader, as the inquest began into what several Labour MPs described as a "disastrous" debate on prisons on Thursday, and his front-bench reshuffle was delayed after running into difficulties.

Mr Blair's spokesman did not comment on the suggestion that the Labour leader blamed his home affairs spokesman, Jack Straw, for handing Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, a parliamentary triumph. "Tony Blair's view is that the key questions remain unanswered and the public remain appalled by Mr Howard's refusal to answer them," he said.

Thursday's debate, called by Labour to demand the Home Secretary's resignation for interfering in "operational" Prison Service matters, came the day after shadow cabinet elections in which Labour MPs delivered a sharp rebuff to Mr Blair's favoured candidates and plumped instead for "old Labour" stalwarts.

Mr Blair had intended to announce all his frontbench changes on Thursday, but instead named only his Shadow Cabinet posts after running into resistance from disappointed colleagues. Publication of a full list of appointments was yesterday postponed until Monday, although the team of the deputy leader, John Prescott, was announced.

Peter Mandelson, MP for Hartlepool and Mr Blair's close ally, was promoted from the whips office to the team, which includes Richard Caborn, returning to the front bench from the chair of the Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee, as Mr Prescott's deputy, and Derek Foster, the former chief whip, who retains "ex-officio" membership of the Shadow Cabinet.

As many as nine shadow junior ministers have been sacked to make way for promotions and a new influx of the 1992 intake through the whips office. Over the weekend, Mr Blair is expected to appoint 10 new whips - four of whom will be women - who are likely to include: Angela Eagle, vice- chairwoman of the centre-left Tribune Group, Alan Milburn, chairman of the backbench Treasury committee, and John Denham, the "soft left" MP for Southampton Itchen.

A bad week for Labour was sealed with an opinion poll exposing the party's continuing weakness on the issues of inflation and tax.

A Mori poll for yesterday's Sun gave the Tories a 2-to-1 advantage over Labour as the party "most likely to control inflation" (49 to 26 per cent), and a smaller edge as the party "most likely to reduce overall tax" (38 to 32 per cent).