Blair's first reshuffle targets

Labour's 100 days: who's up, who's down, page 4
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The Independent Online
Thrusting young ministers are speculating about the timing of Tony Blair's first ministerial reshuffle - fewer than 100 days after the new Prime Minister formed his first government.

Among the most vulnerable Cabinet targets for the axe are: Gavin Strang, transport minister, David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

All three have suffered humiliating setbacks over the last month. Mr Strang committed the sin of accepting the advice of civil servants on a road programme package, which would have given the green light to a number of "dirty dozen" schemes, including the controversial Salisbury by-pass and a widening of the M25 west of London.

Having already decided to slam the brakes on the powerful roads lobby John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, announced that the M25 plan had been stalled, and the Salisbury by-pass was rejected.

Dr Clark promised to deliver a White Paper on Freedom of Information before the end of this month, but he was then given a savage dressing down by Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, in a Cabinet committee on future legislation, and was virtually ordered to go back to the drawing board.

The White Paper is not now expected until the autumn, and there are strong Whitehall doubts as to whether Dr Clark will be in post when the draft Bill is unveiled early next year.

Mr Smith's problems started with his bungling of the Lottery "fatcats" row, when he appeared to be second-guessed by No10, and culminated in the Prime Minister's decision to hand over the controversial Millennium Dome project to Peter Mandelson, Mr Blair's hatchet-man.

A senior Government source has told The Independent that there is no immediate question of Mr Blair making changes to his ministerial team. They will all be allowed to have their holidays in peace.

But the Whitehall speculation is that changes will be needed by the new year, as the Government's political and parliamentary programme begins to build up.

UK ministers will take over the presidency of the European Union for the first six months of next year; one of the most fundamental spending reviews ever undertaken will be reaching crunch point by next June; and devolution legislation and the implementation of a national minimum wage are just two of the controversial measures that will go before Parliament over the next 12 months.

Recent attacks from Tony Benn and Roy Hattersley, who has not yet taken up his peerage, could also mark the first significant crack in Labour's remarkable discipline, and if backbench sniping builds up, that will add further spice to the Labour cauldron.

It is accepted at Westminster that many members of the Blair team have done very well since May. Mo Mowlam, Northern Ireland, Jack Cunningham, at Agriculture, Alistair Darling, at the Treasury, and Ann Taylor, Leader of the House, have delivered bonus success for Mr Blair, while Mr Prescott, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Jack Straw and David Blunkett have all proved their ability to get on with a difficult job.

Speculation that Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio, is impatient for Cabinet rank could yet prove wide of the mark. He has gathered phenomenal influence on Cabinet committees - where it takes a brave soul to contradict a man thought to be the eyes, ears and voice of the Prime Minister.

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