Blair postpones Cabinet reshuffle until autumn

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR sprang a surprise last night by shelving changes to his Cabinet until the autumn, following weeks of speculation about a shake- up in his top team.

Although the Prime Minister carried out a wide-ranging reshuffle of his junior and middle-ranking ministers, the only change at Cabinet level was the promotion of Paul Murphy, a Northern Ireland minister, to the post of Secretary of State at the Welsh Office. The move was forced on Mr Blair because Alun Michael has become First Secretary in the new Welsh Assembly.

Mr Blair had three reasons for putting off Cabinet changes until later this year. Firstly, Mo Mowlam wanted to stay on as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for a final attempt to secure a lasting peace settlement in the province, following the breakdown of talks on a power-sharing executive this month.

Secondly, Labour has put off until after its annual party conference in September the task of choosing its candidate to run for mayor of London next May. Mr Blair's aides still hope to arm-twist a reluctant Frank Dobson to run, even though he wants to remain Secretary of State for Health.

Thirdly, the Prime Minister wants to bring back Peter Mandelson, one of his close allies, who resigned from the Cabinet last December over his pounds 373,000 personal loan from Geoffrey Robinson, the former Paymaster General. Aides advised Mr Blair that it was too soon to bring back Mr Mandelson only seven months after his spectacular fall, but he could now be in line to take over from Ms Mowlam in Ulster in the autumn, in a move which would be welcomed by the Ulster Unionists.

The appointment to the Welsh Office of Mr Murphy, who was a contender for Ms Mowlam's job, boosts Mr Mandelson's prospects of landing the Northern Ireland job.

Mr Blair's decision, dubbed "the night of the short knives" at Westminster, defied weeks of intense speculation about changes round the Cabinet table. Some ministers believe the "damp squib" reshuffle has been badly handled. "There is a real feeling that it is a mess," said one source.

Some said that Mr Blair's decision made him look weak, since two senior ministers who publicly lobbied to keep their jobs, Ms Mowlam and Frank Dobson, held on even though the Prime Minister was considering moving them.

Ms Mowlam had been sounded out by Mr Blair's aides for the post of Cabinet "enforcer" but expressed doubts that it was the "real job" she wanted. She is believed to want to become Health Secretary.

The Tories said the saga undermined Mr Blair's image as a strong leader, claiming he was a "prisoner of his Cabinet". But Downing Street insisted Mr Blair had never intended major Cabinet changes this month. They said he had not had time to consider the reshuffle in the lower ranks until yesterday.

Mr Blair's decision to stick with his current Cabinet gives a surprise reprieve to Jack Cunningham, the current "enforcer", who had been widely tipped for the sack following criticism of his performance and his spending on overseas trips.

Downing Street denied that the reshuffle has been held up by a rift with John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, following speculation that Mr Blair might break up his giant Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions following criticism of its record on transport. Mr Prescott is expected to see some of his ministers moved or sacked, but one source said: "He is fighting for his department, not his ministers."

Some Blair aides were determined to break up what they regard as a "clique of Prescott's cronies". Glenda Jackson is expected to lose her job as minister for transport in London, but it emerged last night that she was still in the running to become Labour's candidate for mayor. Mr Blair, who wants to block Ken Livingstone, has reassured Ms Jackson that she is still in their minds as a possible standard-bearer.

Mr Blair informed Ms Mowlam and David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, they would stay in the posts before they began their summer holidays this week.

Mr Blair is known to be frustrated by the performance of some of his junior ministers and ministers of state. The final list of the Government's ranks, to be announced today, is expected to show sweeping changes.