Short says sorry as Blair reads riot act

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The Independent Online
The Shadow Cabinet will be warned tomorrow by Tony Blair to toe the line on policy or be sacked, after Clare Short gave a fulsome public apology for overstepping the mark on the legalisation of cannabis.

The Labour leader's office made it clear last night that after being given a carpeting, Ms Short was not at risk of losing her position as shadow Transport Secretary. But Mr Blair's message to Shadow Cabinet colleagues will carry the clear threat that if they step over the line, they will be sacked.

The leadership used the controversy to show the smack of firm leadership by Mr Blair. But there was deep irritation because it deflected attention from Labour's attack yesterday on the "right-wing lurch" by the Tories over policy on Europe, the economy and the NHS.

Roger Freeman, a Cabinet minister, said Mr Blair was angry because Ms Short "kiboshed" a public relations exercise. Michael Heseltine, the deputy Prime Minister, said it was extraordinary "someone who could be a minister of the Crown should actually want to legalise some drugs".

Ms Short was given sympathy, but no support by her friends for making the mistake of speaking her mind on BBC television's Breakfast with Frost. She issued her apology after a half-hour meeting with Mr Blair. A Labour leadership source said Mr Blair reminded Ms Short that members of the Shadow Cabinet, to which she was elected a fortnight ago, were bound by collective responsibility and every statement would come under intense scrutiny.

In her statement, Ms Short said: "I should not have responded to David Frost in the way that I did. I was explaining why I supported a Commons motion on the issue many years ago but I should have realised how it would be used against me and the party.

"That was a view I held then, but the party has looked at the issue very seriously. It has a clear position against legalisation of drugs and I am perfectly happy with that. I am sorry too that a few remarks on drugs at the end of an interview on transport issues has provided a distraction from the real political issue of the moment - the lurch to the right of the Tory party. I am of course aware of the need for collective responsibility and I am happy to abide by it in future."

The determination of the Tories to avoid disruption in their own ranks was underlined last night by Sir Norman Fowler, the former Conservative Party chairman, who ruled himself out as a candidate for the chairmanship of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs. He urged MPs to back Sir Marcus Fox, the present chairman, against the challenge by Bob Dunn, a right winger. Sir Norman said the party needed "stability" in the run-up to the general election.

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