Labour women in showdown

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HARRIET HARMAN, the "new Labour" darling of the Shadow Cabinet, is heading for a political showdown with Margaret Beckett, the former deputy leader and veteran of the traditionalist left, writes Paul Routledge.

The conflict between Labour's two top women comes as Tony Blair grapples with the task of reshaping his "government in waiting" in the run-up to the general election. Last night, steps were being taken to give him a free hand to choose potential ministers.

Ms Harman is set to move from her defunct post as front-bench spokesman on Employment to take over from Donald Dewar as Shadow Social Services Secretary, who is virtually certain to become the Opposition new Chief Whip.

But friends of the MP for Peckham, south London, say she does not want the job, and has set her sights on becoming Shadow Health Secretary. Mrs Beckett, MP for Derby South, who last week received a standing ovation at the party conference, does not wish to give way.

Ms Harman is held in some quarters to have had an indifferent year, handling the controversial issue of the national minimum wage. "She will have to go where she is told," said one Labour back-bencher yesterday.

However, radical changes in the whole system of choosing the Shadow Cabinet are on the horizon. A leading Blair loyalist MP has began a campaign to change party rules so the Labour leader could ditch some of his "no hopers" next year and put together a "Cabinet of all the talents". Jamie Cann, MP for Ipswich, said he was writing to the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Douglas Hoyle, proposing a new rule that would allow Mr Blair to choose who he wants rather than accept the outcome of anachronistic Commons horse-trading that dominates the Shadow Cabinet election.

"The PLP should consider whether it is appropriate to have a self-denying ordinance, to deny ourselves the right to elect the Shadow Cabinet, so that Tony Blair can pick the team he wants to take into the general election.

"I am prepared to forfeit my choice next year as to who is going to be in the Shadow Cabinet. That is the best way to get the strongest team for the election."

Mr Cann insisted that his approach had not been discussed with the Leader's office.

Nonetheless, there are rumours that Mr Blair would like to see next year's Shadow Cabinet elections suspended so that he could form the team of his choice. There is also speculation among Labour MPs that some existing members of the Shadow Cabinet could be retained in a Blair ministration at Minister of State level, outside the cabinet.

Likely casualties of changes that give the leader a free hand are named by insiders as Mrs Ann Taylor, Shadow Leader of the House; David Clark, Defence Spokesman; Gavin Strang, Shadow Agriculture Minister, and perhaps Michael Meacher at Transport.

Beneficiaries would include Brian Wilson, currently shadowing the DTI and Alistair Darling, Labour's articulate City spokesman. Other candidates are Ms Clare Short, the Left-winger, and Tessa Jowell, MP for Dulwich.