Tony Blair last night reprimanded the Shadow Cabinet newcomer Clare Short after she broke the party line by suggesting cannabis could be sold legally and even taxed to keep young people away from hard drugs.
Ms Short, who was given the transport portfolio after winning her place in Mr Blair's team 11 days ago, said in a television interview that current methods of tackling drug abuse were a "disaster" and that "we should not be cowards" in asking some archbishops and former chief constables to review them.
After Jack Straw, shadow Home Secretary, initially sought to play down the remarks as "personal", a spokesman for the Labour leader said Mr Blair would be warning all Shadow Cabinet members "of the need to express party policy and not make personal statements that can be used against us by the media and our political enemies."
Mr Straw told BBC Radio's The World This Weekend: "Labour's position on drugs is very clear. We are against the legalisation of cannabis and other soft drugs."
The reading of the riot act to Ms Short came after Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, moved swiftly to condemn any move to legalise soft drugs as causing "tremendous damage" to society and claiming Labour was at "sixes and sevens" on the subject. As Tory backbenchers joined in the criticism, Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman, challenged Mr Blair to sack her.
The row will cause Mr Blair concern over the ability of Ms Short, member for Birmingham Ladywood, and other independent-minded MPs he wants to bring into the new Labour fold to resist the urge to speak out on controversial issues.
The political embarrassment for Mr Blair was heightened because Ms Short spelt out a virtually identical formula to the one articulated by the Liberal Democrat winner of the Littleworth & Saddleworth by-election, Chris Davies, vilified by Labour as being "soft on drugs".
Mr Davies, who backs a Royal Commission review and says many senior police officers agree with him, said yesterday: "I congratulate Clare Short for her courage in saying cannabis should be decriminalised . . . We are not soft on drugs, we are hard on drug dealers."
Ms Short said medical opinion regarded cannabis as relatively harmless but the problem was that it was "sold by the same people who sell the most vile and destructive drugs".
Labour accused Dr Mawhinney of hypocrisy, claiming the libertarian right of the Tory party backed legalisation.
Conviction politician, page 2
Clare Short speaks her mind
On Parliament: "When people look to the House of Commons to represent their concerns, they too often see a bunch of clowns playing silly games" 1 Sept 1995
On democracy: "Voters prefer women" 8 Dec 1993
On life: "To me the most important thing is to be true to yourself. I have to do that or I'd lose my soul" 29 Jan 1994
On sex: "I don't like people talking about 'having sex'. I think that's vile. Part of its beauty is its untamed passionateness" 29 Jan 94
On the heir to the throne: "I think poor old Charles is losing his marbles." (On the Prince of Wales's defence of a parent's right to smack a child) 5 May 1994
On everything: "All I want is to be myself, to have all my independence and freedom, to be politically effective, to change the country, to be wonderfully in love, and be loved. I just want everything, that's all." 29 Jan 94Reuse content