Blair cracks the whip for Harman

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The Independent Online
Rarely has a Biblical quotation excited quite so much interest at Labour's shadow cabinet. Finishing a plea for the re-election of the shadow ministers, Tony Blair, the Labour leader, last week mused that soon "all that is hidden shall be revealed".

Such is the heightened state of excitement among MPs that more than one came away worried that the secrecy of Labour's ballot later this week may be of the variety beloved of the North Korean electoral reform society.

In fact Mr Blair meant simply that he is keen to get the election over and done with - and little wonder.

The poll has become a test of his grip on the party against Old Labour. Top of Old Labour's target list is the health spokeswoman, Harriet Harman, who enraged colleagues by sending her son to a grammar school.

The history of the on-off election goes back to last year's party conference in Brighton, when Mr Blair's allies floated the idea that the potentially- embarrassing poll should be ditched. Labour knows a divided party tends to be punished by the electorate; elections would expose tensions.

The first recent skirmish was at the 8 May meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party when Paul Flynn, an independent-minded backbencher, proposed the shadow cabinet should offer itself for re-election before the summer recess. Labour's "payroll vote" - front-bench spokesmen and their juniors - was dragged out of Commons committees to defeat the proposition, which duly went down by 64 to 25. New Labour looked safe.

But two months later, Mr Blair was obliged to give in and order a poll after Andrew Mackinlay claimed to have assembled 115 votes for elections taking place. Party leaders decided they should go for - and win - an election rather than risk being labelled anti-democratic. In the words of one Labour backbencher: "This was Blair's first defeat within the party."

Last week Mr Blair, John Prescott, deputy leader, Donald Dewar, chief whip and Doug Hoyle, the PLP chairman, met to decide how the elections should proceed. The leadership's stratagem requires MPs to vote for the existing shadow cabinet - including Ms Harman - plus Jack Cunningham, the unelected shadow heritage secretary, who will fill the vacancy created by Joan Lestor, who is standing down due to ill health. Mr Blair ruled that all members of the shadow cabinet should vote and campaign for each other. He led by example, working the Commons bars last Wednesday.

A campaign to "save Harriet", managed by Henry McLeish, her deputy, aims to win over roughly half of the well-organised - and hostile - Scottish and Northern slates of MPs.

A more concerted operation has been masterminded by Nick Brown, the deputy chief whip.One MP likened it to the Tory whipping operation in Margaret Thatcher's time, adding: "Before this year the whips have worked on behalf of some favourites, but not for the leadership." A Labour backbencher - too scared, as most are, to identify himself - said: "This is the first poll where the whips are in charge. They are calling the shots."

Some MPs have been offered another week's holiday if they hand over their ballot papers to the whips. Frontbenchers have been told that they stand for the shadow cabinet against the existing line-up at their political peril. Many, like Brian Wilson and Alastair Darling, had already decided not to stand this year. Several women frontbenchers took much persuading but the leadership knew that, if some semi-official candidates were allowed to stand, the deal with others would be off.

One prospective candidate for office added: "The message is that if you step out of line and stand against existing members, don't expect to hang on to your middle-ranking shadow job."

Tony Banks MP, a candidate who does dare speak his name, is corrosive. "It is a great shame that people should have been pressurised into standing down. These manoeuvres send shivers down the party at grassroots level. They are a grotesque over-reaction to opposition that isn't even there."

Nor is it guaranteed to work. Some critics and left-wingers, including Ann Clywd and Mr Flynn, will stand. Then there is Ms Harman, whose elected shadow cabinet place must still be in doubt. MPs must vote for four women, but six will probably stand. One MP said: "I know people from shadow ministers to humble backbenchers who are going to vote for the whole team - except Harriet Harman".

Some believe that, by discouraging younger modernisers from standing, Mr Blair has increased the risk of at least one left-winger getting elected by accident.

By Wednesday night Mr Blair will have the most accurate gauge yet of the discipline of a party uneasy about many modernising policies. In the meantime the jokes keep coming. "The election results?" said one Labour apparatchik last week, "I'm just going to type them up now."