The Week In Westminster: Resurrection shuffle sends ministers into a cold sweat

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The Independent Online
THE JULY humidity hung heavy over Westminster this week, breeding the familiar symptoms of Prime Ministeritis and Reshuffleitis - otherwise known as the premature onset of the "silly season".

Tony Blair turned his attention from the burdens of international affairs, via Northern Ireland, to face the tedium of the domestic political agenda. His taste for the grand affairs of state, where prime ministerial power and authority can achieve dramatic results, contrasted with his frustrations at being unable to deliver similar results in health, transport and the public services generally.

The unscripted remarks during his eulogy in support of wealth creation caused him to express the exasperation that Margaret Thatcher felt when faced with similar obstructions from public-sector unions a decade ago.

John Prescott weighed in, as keeper of the Labour conscience, with an implied criticism of the Prime Minister, by stressing his support for the public sector. Talk of "splits" energised the Commons. Sir George Young, shadow Leader of the House, demanded that Prime Minister's Question Time be split between Mr Blair and Mr Prescott "so that the House can hear both sides of the arguments on the performance of those working in the public sector; on transport policy; on co-operation with the Liberal Democrats; and on all the other issues about which the two Rt Hon gentlemen disagree".

But Mr Blair and Mr Prescott know that divided they both fall and that each needs the other. There have been similar stresses to the relationship in the past - not least after the resignation of Peter Mandelson, when Mr Prescott declared that there was a new opportunity to return to the "traditional Labour" agenda. Talk of strains between the two is overblown. The relationship has already endured for five years and has a built-in elasticity that could last for another five years.

RESHUFFLEITIS cast its shadow over familiar names with Jack Cunningham, Margaret Beckett, Michael Meacher and Frank Dobson topping the list of candidates for moving or heading for the chop. Mr Cunningham has recently kept a low profile and must feel vulnerable, although all the pundits got it wrong on him last year. He has been a great survivor but many think his number is finally up this time.

Mrs Beckett is also tipped for the sack. My prediction is that while she will lose the Labour campaigning role, she will continue as Leader of the House. The criticism of her is unfair. She has secured the Government's business programme with relative ease and is admired across the House. Tory MPs, led by Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) paid genuine and handsome tributes. The new Tory frontbench education spokesman, John Bercow (Buckingham), hoped she would be in post "for a long time to come - she has undoubtedly discharged her obligations with great charm, style and dexterity".

Support for Mr Meacher, who confounded his detractors by surviving last year's reshuffle, came from the Labour left-winger Gordon Prentice (Pendle) who said: "If I had a vote for ministers - tragically, I do not - he would have my vote. I hope that he keeps his job." His colleague, David Taylor (Leicestershire North West) declared, however, that Mr Prentice's endorsement was the "kiss of death" for Mr Meacher.

Even the Royal Family got in on the reshuffle act with the Duke of York - attending a function with the Minister of Agriculture, Nick Brown - declaring publicly that Mr Brown's predecessors were moved annually and expressing the hope that Mr Brown would continue to serve at the ministry.

MEANWHILE, no one spoke up louder for Frank Dobson than Frank Dobson. Yesterday on the Today programme he expressed his desire to continue at the Department of Health "for years to come".

He eulogised the Prime Minister and virtually begged, on the airwaves, not to be sent to the political Siberia of the London mayor's office.

It is easy to understand Mr Dobson's reluctance to be fobbed off with London. First, he would be in political no-man's land until May next year. Second, if he is seen to be the foisted choice of Labour, in preference to Ken Livingstone, the chances are that Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, for the Tories, might actually beat him.

His survival as Secretary of State for Health will be the ultimate test of the real influence of his best mate and protector, John Prescott, in persuading the Prime Minister to keep him in post.

TORY MPS have renamed the Committee on Standards and Privileges as the "Committee on Double Standards and Privileges" after its decision to ignore Elizabeth Filkin's report containing strong criticism of Peter Mandelson over the non-disclosure of his pounds 373,000 interest-free home loan from Geoffrey Robinson.

The committee ditched the report from the parliamentary commissioner and recommended that no action be taken against Mr Mandelson.

Not so lucky was Ernie Ross (Lab, Dundee West) who faces a full Commons debate on Monday when a decision will be taken on the committee's report of his premature disclosure, to Robin Cook's office, of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee findings into the Sierra Leone affair.

Mr Ross has been made to be the fall-guy for acting as the Labour whips' office nark and faces the prospect of 10 days suspension from the Commons with loss of pay. He has also been ordered to apologise to the House but, so far, he has shown little sign of contrition. The apology has not yet been forthcoming although he could do it during Monday's debate.

In the meantime Mr Ross has been on a freebie to St Petersburg, making the most of life before the likely suspension by attending a conference of the Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe.

THE FORMER Tory chancellor Ken Clarke missed taking a pounds 6,000 fee for a speech to promote the case for the euro. The Centre for Manufacturing Industry, which is funded by Birmingham City Council, was due to hold a conference to persuade businessmen of the benefits of the single currency.

More than 6,500 invitations were sent out, but such was the enthusiasm from captains of industry that only 21 acceptances were received. Sadly, the conference, Mr Clarke and the fee were cancelled.

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