Day of drift and dither in Downing Street

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The man at the centre of the reshuffle storm, Alan Milburn, looked at his pager yesterday and found a message from one of Tony Blair's closest allies in the Cabinet.

The man at the centre of the reshuffle storm, Alan Milburn, looked at his pager yesterday and found a message from one of Tony Blair's closest allies in the Cabinet.

"Please ring Tessa asap," said the message.

Mr Milburn strode to committee room five along a Commons corridor, stripped by builders of all carpets, apparently unconcerned he was at the centre of cabinet speculation.

Colleagues said Mr Milburn had forced Tony Blair to delay the reshuffle by holding out for a more significant cabinet post. "He is being a prima donna, like Peter Mandelson," said one minister.

As the speculation raged at Westminster, Mr Milburn spent most of the day in committee room five, chairing an obscure government Bill on charity law. He took a break for a vote and joked: "Yes I have had a haircut - I must be looking for a job. It had nothing to do with going on holiday."

Mr Milburn, who walked out of the Cabinet 15 months ago to spend more time with his family, triggering a botched reshuffle by Mr Blair, was filmed walking back into the political limelight yesterday. He was followed by a camera crew as he strolled to Westminster from his flat, next to the MI6 building in Vauxhall Cross.

By the time he reached the Commons, his pager was filled with messages, including one from Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, an ardent Blairite.

She was said by colleagues to have pressed Mr Milburn at a meeting with John Reid, the Health Secretary, and Stephen Byers, a close friend of Mr Milburn and a former cabinet minister, to return to the Cabinet, providing he was satisfied that it was a "real job". The meeting in Mr Byers's fifth-floor private office in Portcullis House lasted an hour.

Then Mr Milburn returned to committee room five in the Commons to await the call from Mr Blair. Mr Blair had returned from holiday with a plan to replace the Glaswegian fixer Ian McCartney with Mr Milburn as party chairman to present a smoother image for the party in the run-up to the general election. He was forced by Gordon Brown and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, to abandon the idea of sacking or moving Mr McCartney.

Friends said Mr Milburn, who is a committed policy moderniser, also made it clear to Mr Blair that he would not return to the Cabinet simply to act as the minister for BBC Radio's Today programme.

Mr Blair faced taunts by Michael Howard, the Conservative Party leader, about the cabinet backstabbing over the reshuffle at Prime Minister's Questions. He brushed aside the Tory leader's gibes that the Brownites were at war with the Blairites, and got the better of Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, over funding of the Liberal Democrats' proposed pension increase.

Mr Blair left the chamber to cheers for "more" from his own side. He then went on to a private meeting with senior Labour MPs, followed by an uncomfortable confrontation in his room with Tony Banks, the leader of the Labour MPs demanding a ban on fox-hunting.

Mr Banks told Mr Blair at their private meeting in the Commons that the vast majority of Labour MPs found his plan to delay for two years the ban on hunting totally unacceptable.

It was turning into a disastrous day for Mr Blair.

The Prime Minister returned to Downing Street through bright sunlight, still thinking about his reshuffle, for a meeting with the Romanian President, which lasted one and a half hours. As the clock ticked by, the impression of drift and dither in Downing Street gained ground at Westminster.

Mr Prescott, who likes to spend Wednesdays in the Commons, appeared relaxed, buying a couple of sandwiches from the MPs' tearoom, and chatting, while Mr Blair wrestled with putting his team together.

Alan Johnson went into 10 Downing Street at 6.10pm to be told he would be promoted to Work and Pensions Secretary, replacing Andrew Smith, who resigned, indignant at spinning against him, earlier in the week.

Today, Mr Blair is planning to chair a political meeting of the Cabinet, after the normal full cabinet session. There was one other item of business that forced Mr Blair's hand to carry through the reshuffle last night: the official cabinet photograph is due to be taken this morning with Mr Blair and his new line-up. He wanted Mr Milburn back in the picture.

As Downing Street officials gathered around the television sets to watch the England football match, Mr Milburn slipped into Downing Street via the side entrance. At 8.47 pm, Downing Street announced he had accepted the cabinet post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in charge of policy. "He will be policy supremo," said a senior official. It was the "real job" that Ms Jowell and Mr Reid had urged him to take.

THE DAY'S EVENTS

9am: Alan Milburn chairs meeting on charities Bill

12pm: Tony Blair taunted by Michael Howard in Commons over reshuffle

2pm: Tessa Jowell, John Reid meet Mr Milburn in Stephen Byers's office to press him to take job

3pm: Mr Blair returns to Downing Streetfor a meeting with Romanian President Ion Iliescu

3.45pm: Prime Minister's spokesman says Mr Blair will carry out the reshuffle when "he has made up his mind and he's ready"

6.03pm: Mr Howard says he is carrying out a Shadow Cabinet reshuffle

6.10pm: Cabinet reshuffle begins as Alan Johnsonarrives at No 10

6.30pm: Mr Milburn slips into the Cabinet Office via side entrance

7.04pm: Mr Johnson leaves

8.47pm: Downing Street announces Mr Milburn accepted post and Mr Johnson appointed Work and Pensions Secretary

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