Party executive delivers setback to Blair as ally Soley is ousted

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Clive Soley, the chairman of Labour's parliamentary party, was voted off the party's executive by MPs and MEPs last night in a snub to the Prime Minister's authority.

The failure of Mr Soley to retain his place on the influential National Executive Committee will come as a blow to Tony Blair, who regards the MP as one of his chief allies in the House of Commons.

Mr Soley was replaced by the former EastEnders actor and Labour MEP Michael Cashman ­ who has sat on the NEC in the past, in the members' section.

Mr Soley was also beaten by the veteran left-wing MP Dennis Skinner in a run-off for two places in the members' section. The third member is Helen Jackson, the MP for Sheffield Hillsborough.

Last night Millbank also announced the election of the left-wing Labour journalist and commentator Mark Seddon to the members' section of the NEC. Tony Robinson, the actor best known for his role as Baldric in Blackadder, received most votes from Labour Party members, amassing 29,771.

The party's headquarters denied the failure to elect Mr Soley should be interpreted as a blow to New Labour.

Mr Soley is well liked in the Commons. But he is regarded as a close ally of Mr Blair and the snub will be interpreted by many at Westminster as an act of defiance against the Labour leadership. There are growing signs that Mr Blair could face criticism from left-wing MPs in this Parliament over his plans to make increasing use of the private sector in the NHS and other public services.

The new NEC will start its work at the time of the Labour Party conference and Mr Soley will step down in the autumn.

Mr Soley narrowly saw off a challenge to his chairmanship of the Parliamentary Labour Party earlier this year from the former Foreign Office minister Tony Lloyd. Although he managed to secure a modest margin of victory, the sizeable vote against him was seen as a protest against his close relationship to Downing Street.

After the result was announced, Mr Soley promised to speak up for the back benches, warning that the support of rank and file MPs could not be taken for granted.

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