Mowlam emerging as strong contender for Health

Reshuffle speculation gathers pace
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THE IMMINENT departure of Frank Dobson from the cabinet to concentrate on his campaign to become the Mayor of London is paving the way for a wide-ranging Cabinet reshuffle.

THE IMMINENT departure of Frank Dobson from the cabinet to concentrate on his campaign to become the Mayor of London is paving the way for a wide-ranging Cabinet reshuffle.

The reshuffle, which may even take place today, could see either Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, or Alan Milburn, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, brought in to replace Mr Dobson. Peter Mandelson may make an early return to the cabinet in what is probably the last reshuffle before Mr Blair calls a general election.

Tony Blair, who spent the weekend finalising the changes, will also have to fill the post of Secretary of State for Defence, which Lord Robertson of Port Ellen will vacate to begin his new job as Secretary-General of Nato on Thursday. Both Jack Cunningham, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and John Reid, the Secretary of State for Scotland, are possible replacements for the defence job. Dr Reid was until recently the front runner to take over at the Ministry of Defence, but an alleged lobbying scandal in Scotland involving Dr Reid's son, together with a stand-up row with the Scottish First Minister, Donald Dewar, at the Labour party conference, may have scuppered the move.

Following the messy presentation of the last mini-reshuffle in the summer, Downing Street is expected to be much more clinical about the latest changes in order to minimise speculation and leaks. It is unlikely that Mr Blair will leave Mr Dobson as a "lame duck" Health Secretary for long, another fact that insiders claimed pointed to an announcement today.

Ms Mowlam has indicated in the past that she would like to take over at the Department of Health and could use her popularity to become the face of the NHS in the run-up to the next election. Her departure would leave open the prospect of an early return to office for Peter Mandelson, less than a year after he resigned as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. However, Mr Mandelson's opponents believe it is too soon for him to re-enter the Cabinet and claim he needs to "do his time" for accepting a £373,000 home loan from the then Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson.

Mr Dobson will pursue his mayoral ambitions in the ballot of Labour members due next month. He revealed that although the Prime Minister had said he could remain in post until the mayoral election in May, he believed he could not carry out both roles.

"Even running for the nomination is a full-time job. Quite frankly, I can't do both jobs at once. I think it would be an insult to the people working in the health service to have a part-time Health Secretary," he told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme. "I think it's only right that he appoints somebody to succeed me as Secretary of State for Health, which I'll do with an element of regret and sadness. But I really do think that being the Mayor for London would be a wonderful opportunity."

As most junior posts were filled with new faces in the summer, the expected changes are unlikely to extend much to the lower rungs of the Government. But if Dr Reid is promoted, his place could be filled by Brian Wilson, his deputy at the Scottish Office. That vacancy could herald a fresh wave of changes at junior ministerial level.