Arms twisted over Shadow Cabinet elections

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Indy Politics
Tony Blair is exerting tough discipline on Labour MPs to ensure that his existing team is re-elected in next week's Shadow Cabinet elections. Junior Labour frontbenchers have been told that if they stand they will be putting their posts at risk.

Of the 23 candidates who stood for the Shadow Cabinet last year but who failed to be elected, 18 hold frontbench posts. Four of them have already said they will not be putting their names forward for this year's early elections.

Labour MPs yesterday approved the timetable for a snap election next Wednesday, and nominations for the 19-strong elected Shadow Cabinet opened immediately.

Most Labour MPs assume that Mr Blair would prefer no change in his team, with the place of Joan Lestor, the overseas development spokeswoman who announced her retirement from parliament this week, being taken by Jack Cunningham. Dr Cunningham failed to hold his place in last year's elections, but was appointed to the Shadow-Cabinet-level post of national heritage spokesman.

Mr Blair is thought to be keen to defend Harriet Harman, health spokeswoman, who came 18th last year and regained her place by just eight votes. Her decision to send her son to a selective grammar school was intensely unpopular.

But the authoritarian tone of the Labour whips' office has taken some possible candidates by surprise. Sources said they have been told that they could be sacked or demoted if they put their names forwards.

Commons corridors have been awash with speculation about contenders since Mr Blair signalled his acceptance of early elections last week. Dawn Primarolo, a former close aide of Tony Benn's but now a member of Gordon Brown's frontbench Treasury team, emerged as a strong possible candidate. However, she now seems likely to leave the field to backbenchers.

MPs must cast at least four of their 19 votes for women, but even after Ms Lestor's withdrawal there are five women in the existing Shadow Cabinet.