Blair's Britain: Caretaker Major back in front line

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John Major could take personal charge of a raft of key policy areas formerly the responsibility of former cabinet ministers who lost their seats in the election, Conservative sources said last night.

Mr Major might decide to speak for his party on areas such as foreign affairs and defence until he stands down as leader. In another key area, Scotland, all four former Scottish Office ministers have lost their seats.

The new Tory leader, who will be elected next month, will choose his or her own Shadow Cabinet. Mr Major has to decide how to tackle parliamentary business in the meantime.

With 9 days to go before Labour announces its legislative programme, including devolution for Scotland and Wales, Mr Major must act quickly to fill seven gaps in his team. They are left by the former Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Transport, Roger Freeman, the President of the Board of Trade, Ian Lang, the Leader of the House, Tony Newton, and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, William Waldegrave.

Mr Major will see his chief whip, Alastair Goodlad, and the shadow leader of the Lords, Viscount Cranborne, tomorrow to discuss the problem. He has three options - to allow people who have been junior ministers to act up as leading spokespeople, to give the job to spokespeople from the House of Lords, or to do the job himself for the time being.

"Areas like defence, foreign affairs, Northern Ireland are obviously things that would clearly come under the Prime Minister's remit," a Conservative spokesman said. He added that spokesmen in the House of Lords could take over, but in that case someone would still have to be found to put the Opposition case on the Queen's Speech and in other debates in the House of Commons.

A more permanent Shadow Cabinet will be chosen by the Conservatives' new leader once he or she has been elected. But before an election can be held, a new chairman and executive of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee must be found. Its former chairman, Sir Marcus Fox, lost his Shipley seat to Labour and one of its two vice-chairmen, Dame Jill Knight, stood down at the election. The other vice-chairman, Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, will stand for the post; John MacGregor, Tom King and Archie Hamilton could also take part.

Rebuilding the Conservative Party:

A provisional timetable.

Tuesday 6 May: John Major meets chief whip, Alastair Goodlad, and leader in the Lords, Lord Cranborne, on interim Shadow Cabinet.

Wednesday 7 May - Friday 9 May: New MPs sworn in.

Wednesday 14 May: Queen's Speech. Tory MPs could meet the same day to start elections for backbench 1922 Committee.

Wednesday 21 May: New chairman and executive of the 1922 Committee elected.

Wednesday 28 May: Tory leadership election begins.

Wednesday 4 June: First leadership ballot.

Wednesday 11 June: Second leadership ballot. New leader elected.

Thursday 12 June: New leader begins forming Shadow Cabinet.