Blair takes control of whips' jobs

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Indy Politics

Political Correspondent

The final transformation of the Opposition whips' office to reflect Tony Blair's vision of a new Labour Party is set to be put in train today, after Derek Foster, the Chief Whip, announced he would not seek re-election in October.

At that time, in a new post created by the party leader, Mr Foster will take charge of planning for the transition from opposition to government, forging new contacts within Whitehall and giving practical advice on the party's manifesto commitments.

As he bows out from the crucial task of negotiating with Government business managers and making appointments for key Commons committees, his reward is to become one of a very few senior figures to have secured a guarantee of a Cabinet job if Labour forms the next government.

In the meantime, the parliamentary party will today be asked to endorse new rules under which the next Chief Whip will be appointed by Mr Blair from within the elected members of the Shadow Cabinet.

Under the revised rules, Mr Blair and his deputy, John Prescott, would also appoint the Deputy Chief Whip and the pairing whip from the ranks of the PLP. All three positions are currently elected.

The changes were first proposed by a review group in 1992. While a majority of rank and file MPs has always managed to block them - despite protests that an election for the pairing position was viewed as an instrument for patronage - Mr Blair's office appeared confident that they would be endorsed today.

The developments come in the wake of the radical action taken last autumn by Mr Blair when he appointed a number of the 1992 intake of younger MPs from the "modernising" wing, including Peter Mandelson, the former communications chief, to serve an apprenticeship in the whips' office.

Speculation immediately took off yesterday over who Mr Blair had in mind to replace Mr Foster. Names being discussed included George Robertson (shadow Scottish secretary), Frank Dobson (environment), Margaret Beckett (health) and Ann Taylor, shadow Leader of the House. Peter Kilfoyle, an education spokesman and a former whip, is also emerging as a favourite. He would, how- ever, have to win a Shadow Cabinet place first.

Mr Foster, 58, a former aide to Neil Kinnock, is a veteran of a decade of masterminding parliamentary strategies, including Westland, Margaret Thatcher's embarrassing defeat over Sunday trading, the Maastricht rebellions, last year's "non- co-operation" war with Government whips and the voting down of the second stage of VAT on domestic fuel, forcing Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, to return to the despatch box with a fresh "mini" Budget.

But he told MPs yesterday in a statement: "I have long made clear, first to John Smith and then to Tony Blair, that I would not wish to serve a full term as Chief Whip in a Labour government, but would wish to put my experience to use in a different senior government position."