Mowlam threat to quit over reshuffle threat to quitned to quit over reshuffle

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MO MOWLAM threatened to resign from the Cabinet when Tony Blair told her he wanted to move her from the Northern Ireland Office in last week's ministerial reshuffle.

Ms Mowlam's warning to Mr Blair helped to persuade him to abort his plans to shake up his Cabinet. After weeks of speculation, the only change he announced was the appointment of Paul Murphy as Welsh Secretary. It is understood that Ms Mowlam turned down the offer of a dual role heading Labour's campaigning effort and acting as the Government's chief media spokeswoman.

She complained that this was not "a real job" and expressed a desire to become Foreign Secretary or Secretary of State for Health. After calls by Ulster Unionists for her to be moved, Ms Mowlam was reluctant to leave the Northern Ireland Office under a cloud caused by the collapse of talks on setting up a power-sharing executive last month. With neither the Foreign Office nor Health Department on offer, she is understood to have told the Prime Ministerthat she wanted to stay on as Northern Ireland Secretary, and would rather leave the Cabinet than take the proposed Labour Party job.

Ms Mowlam was furious about press reports suggesting that Peter Mandelson, who resigned from the Cabinet last December over his pounds 373,000 personal loan from Geoffrey Robinson, was seeking to succeed her in Ulster. "She did not want to be humiliated," a Whitehall insider told The Independent yesterday. "At one point, there was a resignation threat." Last night Downing Street and the Northern Ireland Office refused to comment on whether Ms Mowlam had threatened to quit the Cabinet.

The revelation will fuel Tory accusations that Mr Blair showed "weak leadership" by dropping plans to change his Cabinet. Like Ms Mowlam, Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, went public in saying he wanted to keep his current job.

Mr Blair had a tense meeting with Ms Mowlam 11 days before he carried out his reshuffle a week ago, when she had already started her holiday. He is said by close colleagues to have been irritated by her behaviour, but determined to draw a line under the affair now. "The Northern Ireland peace process must come first," said one aide.

Friends of Ms Mowlam said that she and Mr Blair concluded that the prospects of kickstarting the peace process this autumn would be enhanced if she remained in her post.