Third Tory resigns after rejecting Howard job offer

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Indy Politics

One of Michael Howard's frontbench team has told the Tory leader that she will refuse to accept his offer of a new job and has resigned from the Shadow Cabinet.

Julie Kirkbride, who was sacked yesterday as shadow Culture Secretary, has refused Mr Howard's offer of a job as a foreign affairs spokesman and is said to regard the offer as an insult. Ms Kirkbride has a three-year-old son and the role would mean she would spend substantial periods away from him.

Senior Tories accused Mr Howard of trying to cover up the embarrassment of Ms Kirkbride's rejection because he had lost one of the few women on his front bench.

An official list of the new Tory frontbench team, published on Wednesday, included Ms Kirkbride's name as a foreign affairs spokesman. But she apparently made it clear to David Maclean, the Tory chief whip, that she was not going to accept the role.

The snub comes amid a growing backlash to the reshuffle, which removed two key Tory modernisers, John Bercow, shadow International Development Secretary, and Damian Green, shadow Transport Secretary. They resigned after both being offered the role of shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs.

Senior Tory MPs from the left and right of the party expressed dismay at the decision to move the modernisers from their jobs while bringing back John Redwood, a right-wing Eurosceptic, to the front bench. One frontbench MP declared that Mr Howard had handed Labour a gift by bringing back Mr Redwood. "He has written Labour's election poster for them: a picture of Michael Howard next to John and the words: 'Remember the Nineties'."

Other modernisers also said that Mr Redwood's return would remind voters of John Major's failed government. One said of the reshuffle that it "looks like panic".

The decision to recall the arch-Eurosceptic to the Shadow Cabinet is being seen as an attempt to see off the threat from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which stands to gain votes from the Tories at the next general election.

Mr Redwood, who is admired for his tenacity and will enter the Shadow Cabinet as shadow Deregulation Secretary, won plaudits for directly challenging UKIP during the European election campaign.

Several senior Tory MPs expressed surprise at Mr Howard's decision to move John Bercow. Mr Howard wrote to Mr Bercow yesterday saying he was sorry that he was unable to accept a role. The Tory leader said he hoped Mr Bercow would play "a prominent role" in the next parliament.

Mr Bercow is said to have been moved because he expressed support for Tony Blair over the war on Iraq in a letter to the Prime Minister in which he urged him to intervene over the massacres in Darfur, Sudan. The Tory moderniser is expected to remain a vocal figure in the Commons with interventions on aid policy and issues such as civil partnerships for gay couples, which will be debated next week.

Mr Howard is believed to have told his frontbench team they must raise their game and work harder in the run-up to the next election.

Senior Tories warned that Mr Howard was "foolish" to alienate Mr Bercow, who had the ability to behave like a sniper if he wished. MPs also expressed dismay yesterday at the loss of Mr Green, who is popular among his peers.

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