Blair turns tables in front bench 'clearout'

PATRICIA WYNN DAVIES

and DONALD MACINTYRE

Tony Blair turned the tables on Labour traditionalists yesterday, propelling Shadow Cabinet newcomer Clare Short into the transport portfolio and sidelining her predecessor, Michael Meacher, after the backlash against new Labour in Wednesday's elections.

The move came amid bitter recriminations from within the parliamentary party over allegations that prominent lieutenants of Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, had helped to secure the surprise re-election of Tom Clarke, the spokesman for disabled people.

Mr Clarke, who came onto the Shadow Cabinet as Jack Cunningham, a long- time senior member, was voted off, provoked a wave of anger for undermining Labour's campaign in last year's Monklands East by-election. Mr Blair ignored the rebuff yesterday by naming Mr Cunningham as the new heritage spokesman.

The allegations were hotly denied by Mr Brown's office. But there were persistent suggestions that Andrew Smith, shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, had canvassed support for Mr Clarke.

Mr Clarke backed the much-criticised Monklands council when by-election candidate Helen Liddell was calling for an inquiry into charges of nepotism. His re-election on Wednesday angered and astonished many Blair loyalists.

In what could be a protracted night of the short knives, Mr Blair also began a clear-out of frontbench middle and lower ranks. Around nine had reportedly been sacked or resigned last night in advance of a partial reshuffle of junior posts today. In another wave of "new Labour" appointments at the weekend, five of the 1992 intake serving as whips are expected to be promoted. They are Peter Mandelson, Barbara Roche, Estelle Morris, Geoff Hoon and Stephen Byers. Tessa Jowell was promoted last night from her junior health portfolio to cover women's issues.

Formerly in the vanguard of the "soft" left, Ms Short, the MP for Birmingham Ladywood, played a frontline role in the dumping of left-winger Liz Davies as parliamentary candidate for Leeds North East. Mr Blair has rewarded the service handsomely.

She will handle the delicate task of defining what Labour means by its pledge that there will be a publicly-owned, publicly accountable railway system. Mr Meacher was judged to have taken his definition too far.

Appearing in brackets under David Blunkett in the Shadow Cabinet list released last night, Mr Meacher will shadow employment while Mr Blunkett will take the lead as spokesman for education and employment.

The slap in the face will be compounded by Mr Blair's expected decision to give responsibility for preparations for the minimum wage to a junior colleague under Mr Meacher, Ian McCartney.

Mr Meacher will be left with responsibility for unemployment figures, training and health and safety.

Other high-level changes were confirmed yesterday. Margaret Beckett, who topped the poll, will take over trade and industry, while Harriet Harman spokeswoman, will take over the health portfolio. Chris Smith takes over the key social security portfolio from Donald Dewar, who becomes chief whip.

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