Ministers' fury at Blair over shuffle circus

FURIOUS Cabinet ministers are demanding that Tony Blair end the annual cabinet reshuffle ritual which they say paralyses the Government for weeks and provokes continual, and humiliating, media speculation.

The Prime Minister is facing a growing rebellion from senior ministers including John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, both of whom were victims of negative newspaper stories in the run up to last week's ministerial shake-up.

The frustration will be intensified by the announcement that George Robertson, the Defence Secretary, is likely tomorrow to be appointed Nato Secretary General, necessitating yet another reshuffle in the autumn. This follows earlier shake-ups caused by the resignations of Peter Mandelson, following his home loan scandal, and Donald Dewar, now First Minister of Scotland.

Ministers are urging Mr Blair to make clear that he intends in future to carry out reshuffles on an irregular basis when he feels it is necessary, rather than having an annual event preceded by months of fevered speculation. The tradition of the summer reshuffle is a recent innovation which was set in stone by John Major; previous prime ministers would often spring shake-ups on their cabinets more suddenly.

Members of the Cabinet argue privately that it is impossible for Whitehall to function properly in an atmosphere of uncertainty and instability, and that decisions have been put on hold recently while departments waited to see if their boss would survive last week's reshuffle.

They also say it is difficult for ministers to master their portfolios if they are constantly shunted around from one department to another every 12 months. "You wouldn't run a company like this," one Cabinet minister said last week. "And it's no way to run a government."

There is growing anger across Whitehall that Downing Street did not dampen down the expectation that last week's reshuffle would be far wider than it was. Despite weeks of speculation that several Cabinet ministers were facing the sack, none were dismissed last week and only one person, Paul Murphy, was promoted to the Cabinet, although there were substantial changes in the more junior ministerial ranks. The Tories seized on the news to accuse Mr Blair of "chickening out" of the changes he really wanted to implement, following appeals from ministers including Frank Dobson and Mo Mowlam to be allowed to stay in their posts.

Ministers are blaming Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's official spokesman, for failing to put a halt to the speculation - he has consistently refused to comment on reshuffle stories. One government member privately accused Downing Street of allowing the reports to run in an attempt to "keep ministers on their toes" by making them feel insecure about their future. Mr Prescott has already blamed the "faceless wonders" at Number 10 for a succession of newspaper stories suggesting that the Prime Minister wanted his deputy to "get a grip" on transport.

It is understood that Mr Blair did originally intend to carry out a broader reshuffle but changed his mind when the Northern Ireland peace process stalled. He then decided that Dr Mowlam should stay in Ulster to see the talks through at least until the autumn. The next reshuffle will bring in more changes at Cabinet level and the summer recess is certain to be dominated by speculation about who is up and who is down.

Mr Robertson is likely to take up his Nato post in October, when his predecessor Javier Solana goes to Brussels as Europe's foreign and defence supremo. His departure from British politics will also prompt a by-election in his Scottish constituency, where Labour could face a threat from the Scottish National Party. However, Mr Blair decided that it was worth relinquishing his Defence Secretary in order to give Britain a foothold on the international stage - the other potential candidates Paddy Ashdown and Michael Portillo were not thought to be strong enough to win worldwide support.

Mr Robertson, a strong pro-European, will be able to use the Nato job to promote the concept of Europe getting its own defence capability and help shape international war policy in the wake of the Kosovo conflict.

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