Blair creates Cabinet in his own image, packed with soulmates

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Indy Politics

TONY BLAIR now has a cabinet more in his own image, and a much stronger team on which to build his attempt to win the next general election.

TONY BLAIR now has a cabinet more in his own image, and a much stronger team on which to build his attempt to win the next general election.

The three outgoing cabinet ministers were allies but not Blairite soulmates. Jack Cunningham and Lord Robertson of Port Ellen are Old Right rather than New Labour. And although Mr Blair wants Frank Dobson to carry Labour's banner in the London mayoral election in May, he frustrated Downing Street by displaying an independent streak at the Department of Health.

Their replacements - Mo Mowlam at the Cabinet Office, Geoff Hoon at the Ministry of Defence and Alan Milburn at Health - are all fully paid-up Blairites, strong performers who now hold pivotal positions. The early return of Peter Mandelson gives Mr Blair another close supporter. Andrew Smith, the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was Gordon Brown's choice but is not a faction-fighter.

The biggest loser is John Reid, who was earmarked in Mr Blair's mind for a short stay at the Scottish Office when he was moved there in July, and a swift promotion to the Defence Ministry this autumn. Brian Wilson was switched from the Department of Trade and Industry to number two in Scotland with the intention that he would succeed Mr Reid and join the Cabinet.

The two men are now stuck in their current posts and can only reflect ruefully that three months is a long time in politics. Mr Reid's fate is not due solely to his public spat with Donald Dewar, Scotland's First Minister, over the "Lobbygate" controversy involving Mr Reid's son. It is more about his running battle with Mr Dewar over the roles of the Scottish Office andScottish Parliament. Mr Blair's advisers, and some cabinet ministers, persuaded Mr Reid not to give the Edinburgh Parliament an early scalp. "It was a trial of strength between the UK and the new Parliament; the UK had to win," one aide said.

The clinical handling of last night's announcements contrasted sharply with the non-reshuffle in July. Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's press secretary, visibly enjoyed baiting the media over its predictions of a significant cabinet shake-up in the summer and the press took its revenge by accusing Mr Blair of dithering.Yesterday morning, Mr Blair's spokesman announced in a matter-of-fact way that the Prime Minister "is reshuffling his cabinet today".

Although last night's decisive shake-up strengthened Mr Blair's power base, he has not quite lived down the July débâcle. The impressive Mr Hoon was moved to the MoD after just three months as minister for Europe, which will cause a knock-on reshuffle in Robin Cook's team.

Ms Mowlam, who scuppered big changes in the summer by holding on to the Northern Ireland job, would probably have preferred Health to the job of "cabinet enforcer" she won yesterday. In July, she is believed to have turned down the Cabinet Office post, saying she wanted a "real job." Although Mr Cunningham failed to have much impact, cabinet colleagues believe Ms Mowlam will make a much better fist of it. "Cunningham missed an open goal to become a high-profile minister," one said.

Ms Mowlam will become a spokesman for the Government, as well as handling issues such as drugs and GM foods and knocking heads together on cabinet committees - a crucial behind-the-scenes role which Mr Cunningham often delegated to Lord Falconer of Thoroton, his deputy.

The Cabinet Office will become more integrated with Downing Street as Mr Blair chases his elusive goal of "joined up government". Ms Mowlam may also take on a party political role in the run-up to the general election.

Mr Blair will now have a dilemma over whether to bring Mr Mandelson from Ulster before the election. The Prime Minister was appalled by Labour's lacklustre effort in the June European Parliament elections, and had intended to ask Mr Mandelson to work with Gordon Brown on the effort to win a second term.

Whether he recreates the Brown-Mandelson team which won Labour its landslide in 1997 may now depend onevents in Northern Ireland.