Clare Short gets something to smile about

Paul Routledge and Clare Garner on how Blair handed colleagues the good news and the bad
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The Independent Online
Clare Short gets something to smile about

On the first day of the future, Tony Blair lived up to New Labour's image in appointing his Cabinet yesterday, making it younger, more meritocratic and with more women than John Major's team.

For the first time in 18 years, no Etonian will be sitting around the Cabinet table, and Oxbridge graduates will barely be seen. The 22 members have an average age of 51.5, compared with the 53.5 of Mr Major's Cabinet, and the vast majority are state-educated.

The principal exception is Mr Blair himself, who attended Fettes, the "Scottish Eton", and Harriet Harman, a former pupil of London's most exclusive girls' school, St Paul's. Although a number of Scots in the Cabinetwent to solidly bourgeois Scottish academies, most of the other members are from grammar schools or, as in the case of John Prescott, from secondary moderns, the one-time repositories of 11-plus failure.

Mr Major's departing Cabinet, by contrast, contained nearly a dozen public schoolboys, five of them Old Etonians.

The change in background to less glamorous universities is similarly striking. Mr Major's Cabinet was 78 per cent Oxbridge, with 18 out of 23; Mr Blair's is 18 per cent, with four: Mr Blair himself and Lord Richard from Oxford, and from Cambridge, Chris Smith and Gavin Strang.

Scottish universities are best represented, with six alumni from north of the border: Gordon Brown and Robin Cook from Edinburgh; Donald Dewar and Lord Irvine from Glasgow; George Robertson from Dundee, and Alistair Darling from Aberdeen. Otherwise, provincial universities such as Hull, Leeds, Sheffield and York figure strongly on Blair Cabinet CVs.

At a stroke yesterday, Mr Blair more than doubled the representation of women in his Cabinet. Mr Major's contained two (Virginia Bottomley and Gillian Shephard); Mr Blair starts with five - Margaret Beckett, Harriet Harman, Mo Mowlam, Ann Taylor and Clare Short.

He also has the first openly homosexual minister, in Chris Smith; the first open advocate of a rethink on the legalisation of cannabis, in Clare Short; and, for that matter, the first minister with a guide dog, in David Blunkett.

Mr Blair appointed his seven most senior colleagues on Friday and spent yesterday in Downing Street selecting the rest.

From 9.30am a procession of hopefuls trooped through the doors of Number 10. Some were elated, others disappointed, by the time the Prime Minister completed his Cabinet-making in the late afternoon with the surprise appointment of Frank Dobson, 57, as Secretary of State for Health instead of Chris Smith, who had shadowed the post.

One of the most popular appointments was Mo Mowlam, who has recently had radiotherapy to cure a non-malignant brain tumour; she gave the thumbs- up signal from her car window to indicate she had been made Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. One of the most eagerly awaited was that of Clare Short, Labour's front-bench enfant terrible, who was confirmed as Secretary of State for International Development.

On the doorstep of her office in Victoria Street, she told reporters her job was "an awesome responsibility." "I'm very pleased. It's what I wanted. One in five of the world's population lives in abject poverty. We don't have a safe or decent world unless we do something about it."

Ms Short, a Home Office civil servant before becoming an MP in 1983, was shifted from the more high-profile Transport portfolio for expressing herself too controversially. "I'm going to try to be good but I can't help it," she said at the time of her demotion. "I have to be me."

As expected, Harriet Harman was given Peter Lilley's old job as Secretary of State for Social Security, which she has shadowed since last summer. But some of the shine was taken off her appointment by the simultaneous announcement that Frank Field, MP for Birkenhead, will be her Minister of State with responsibility for long-term reform of the welfare state.

Donald Dewar, who had been Opposition Chief Whip, and who was appointed Secretary of State for Scotland, will in the Cabinet - piquantly - sit across the table from Lord Irvine, the man who years ago formed a relationship with Mr Dewar's wife and subsequently married her.

Mr Dewar's deputy in opposition, Nick Brown, stepped up to take the full Chief Whip post.

A former official of the GMB union, Mr Brown, 46, masks a hard-nosed disciplinarianism with a public bar geniality. Educated at a secondary modern school and technical high school in Tunbridge Wells, he came into the Commons as MP for Newcastle East in the 1983 election with Blair and Gordon Brown. With a Commons majority of 179, Labour is ostensibly fireproof, but a majority on this scale also brings problems of maintaining discipline, a task Mr Brown will relish.

Frank Dobson, the Shadow Environment Secretary, who as a vaguely "Old Labour" figure was thought in danger of not making the Cabinet, squeezed in under the wire as Secretary of State for Health.