Labour feeding 'junk food' to press

"JUNK FOOD" was fed to newspapers about Tony Blair's next reshuffle in an attempt to stop businessmen being put off from taking on ministerial roles in the Blair government, Whitehall sources said last night.

A fresh spate of reshuffle stories that the Paymaster-General, Geoffrey Robinson, was to be moved from the Treasury to become the transport minister were dismissed as the "junk food of political journalism" by the Prime Minister's official spokesman.

"Only one person knows when and if there will be a reshuffle, with a small number of people to whom he may or may not have indicated his thoughts. They do not include anyone who spoke to the press. All reshuffle stories are crap," the spokesman, said.

However, there was a strong belief around Whitehall yesterday that the reshuffle stories were Treasury-inspired to prepare public opinion to avoid a move by Mr Robinson being interpreted as punishment for using a perfectly legal tax shelter. Some ministers fear that other businessmen would not wish to face similar criticism for routine business manoeuvres within the law. "I have heard businessmen saying if this is what you get, then it's not worth it," a ministerial source said.

There is concern within Whitehall at the way that Mr Robinson has been hounded since it was disclosed he had a pounds 12m offshore trust in Guernsey. As a close friend of the Prime Minister and a Treasury minister, Mr Robinson has been a prime target for Tory sniping, but he was the second minister with a background in big business to come under fire.

Lord Simon, the trade minister in the Lords, the former chief executive of BP, was forced to sell his oil shares in the company over an alleged conflict of interests between his shareholdings and his job, after weeks of attacks over a blind trust, although he had done nothing illegal.

The preparation this weekend for a move by Mr Robinson was seen as an attempt to soften the blow when he is switched to another ministry - a move predicted by The Independent.

Whether he will be moved to John Prescott's "super ministry" to replace transport minister Gavin Strang remains an open question. Mr Robinson's private finance initiative (PFI) tasks would fit in better with the Department of Trade and Industry than Mr Prescott's Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, although there was speculation that it would be doubly embarrassing to have Mr Robinson - believed to have been on the board of some Maxwell companies - at the DTI when it published its report on the Maxwell empire.

The lower ranks are gearing up for a big reshuffle, largely involving a round of musical chairs rather than sackings. Those on the move after the first year in office could include Alan Milburn, the health minister, Stephen Byers, schools minister, and Helen Liddell, economic secretary to the Treasury. They are playing down as "too soon" suggestions they will be promoted into the Cabinet to replace David Clark, minister for public office, or Mr Strang. "Peter Mandelson will be the first in," said one minister.

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