Blair's cabinet emerges from the shadows

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Indy Politics
Fortunately for all concerned, politicians are not often asked to take part in beauty parades. But Tony Blair's Shadow Cabinet have already begun showing their wares in preparation for the post-election Grand Final should the leader be handing out government jobs.

Mr Blair has promised that if Labour wins, he will stick by party rules which guarantee seats to all 23 elected members of the Shadow Cabinet. But his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, has embarked on a complex exercise aimed at deciding who gets which job.

Shadow Cabinet members have been invited to tell the party leadership what they most want to be doing in June.

Mr Powell is charged with the job of sifting through the various bids and trying to impose some sort of order. The task is complicated by the need to find jobs for four non-elected Shadow Cabinet members plus Peter Mandelson, currently in charge of election planning, taking the total to 28. There are only 23 in the Major Cabinet, though there is no reason why Mr Blair's cannot be bigger.

Although no final decisions will be made until after the election, there are some near-certainties and a few huge question marks.

Among the happy few who can remain on the sidelines of this process, confident that they will stay put, are the education spokesman David Blunkett and the shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown. Jack Straw, the party's home affairs spokesman, is likely to get the Home Office, possibly with the addition of a women's unit run by Janet Anderson, the party's women's affairs spokeswoman. Robin Cook looks unlikely to move from foreign affairs, not least because he is the only person who understands Europe well enough to lead the post- Maastricht negotiations.

The biggest question mark hangs over John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader. Mr Prescott has been said to want the words "Deputy Prime Minister" on his office door, but he has also been said to want a proper department to run. It was rumoured that he had been to see Mr Blair earlier in the week to sort things out "once and for all", but he was coy afterwards about the result.

A combination of transport and environment would possibly suit Mr Prescott, but what would then happen to Andrew Smith, the non-elected transport spokesman, and Frank Dobson, the elected environment spokesman?

The party leadership has made no secret of the fact that it would like to dump Michael Meacher, currently in charge of environmental protection but who - unfortunately for them - was re-elected last July.

Another question mark hangs over who would be put in charge of Labour's devolution plans. One suggestion is that the shadow leader of the house, Ann Taylor, could swap jobs with the popular but non-elected shadow chief whip, Donald Dewar, so that he could then oversee the process.

Meanwhile, Clare Short has put in a bid to add the international environment to an enhanced Overseas Development Agency which she would like to run. She believes the addition, possibly along with new responsibility for organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the International Labour Organisation, would strengthen her brief and make it more effective. Senior Whitehall officials, who are now in talks with all shadow cabinet members, are considering this suggestion at the moment.

Then there is Peter Mandelson, currently Mr Blair's spin-doctor supreme. Last week, in an interview with the New Statesman, he made what was described as a public application for the job of heritage secretary. Jack Cunningham, the shadow incumbent, must feel insecure.

Presumably Mr Mandelson's ploy was thought to be a good one, because in today's edition of the same magazine Mr Meacher is to be found doing exactly the same.

"I've had more experience of a range of portfolios than anyone else," he said.

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