Leadership poll hit by Harman row

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The Independent Online

Chief Political Correspondent

The simmering row over Harriet Harman's choice of a grammar school for her 11-year-old son is threatening to backfire on the Labour leadership and help to tie Tony Blair's hands over the formation of his first Cabinet. Opinion among Labour MPs has hardened so much since the Harman row that pressure to suspend this year's annual Shadow Cabinet elections has been reversed.

Senior Labour sources said the Labour backbench is determined to bring forward the elections from November to July, threatening Ms Harman with being kicked off the Shadow Cabinet.

The Harman row has also hardened backbench opinion against any change in the rules under which Mr Blair must take those elected in the Shadow Cabinet elections into his first Cabinet. He could co-opt Ms Harman into the Cabinet if she fails to gain a place in the Shadow Cabinet this year but Mr Blair would face serious criticism if he did so.

"Any resiling from the principle that the same people who are elected should go into the Cabinet is just not on. There would be a revolt in the PLP. It is feeling pretty touchy," said one Shadow minister.

Doug Hoyle, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, was asked this week to review the rules for the Shadow Cabinet elections as part of a wider review of preparations for Labour taking office. Yesterday he denied the move for a change had anything to do with the Harman row.

Demands for the elections to be suspended have been formally dropped and Paul Flynn, the MP for Newport West, has tabled a call for the PLP next Wednesday to support moves to bring forward the Shadow Cabinet elections to July on a permanent basis.

The annual elections to the top Labour posts are only held in Opposition.

After an initial period of office, a Labour prime minister is free to pick whom he chooses for the Cabinet.

Supporters of the move to bring forward the elections believe holding them in July would allow the frontbench team to prepare for an early general election or an autumn assault on the Queen's Speech and the final Budget.

It would also avoid the distraction of campaigning for a Shadow Cabinet poll in November.

It was instructed this week to review the rules for the annual Shadow Cabinet elections before the next general election.

The aim of the review was to give Mr Blair a freer hand to fight the general election.

However, but senior Labour sources said opinion has hardened so much among Labour MPs that it could have the opposite effect.

Some MPs want to tie Mr Blair's hands further by changing the rules to elect all 22 members of the Shadow Cabinet, rather than 18 as at present, to prevent the leader appointing his own choices. But there is not believed to be a majority for such a serious constraint on the leader's powers.

Mr Blair stood by Ms Harman at the height of the row, but the row has festered, in spite of his intervention.

The demand for the changes to the rules goes across the party, from the right to the left wing.