The Yeo Resignation: Departure opens way for three to rise: The Successor: Robert Atkins is a sports fan and Major ally, writes Stephen Goodwin

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL ANCRAM, the junior minister responsible for promoting talks between constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, emerged last night as an unwitting beneficiary of Tim Yeo's resignation.

Three ministerial changes were announced by 10 Downing Street. Robert Atkins, 47, Minister of State for Northern Ireland and a close associate of the Prime Minister, replaces Mr Yeo as Minister of State for the Environment; Mr Ancram, 48, steps up to minister of state rank; and Tim Smith, 46, MP for Beaconsfield since 1982, enters the Government as an Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Mr Ancram, heir of the Marquess of Lothian, is reckoned to have performed well as the minister dealing with political parties in Ulster and retains the portfolio with his new rank. It is his second time on the slippery pole of promotion.

A parliamentary 'retread', he was MP for Edinburgh South from 1979 to 1987 and Under-Secretary of State for Scotland for four years before losing his seat. He became MP for Devizes at the last election.

Mr Ancram enjoyed a higher profile in Northern Ireland than Mr Atkins who, though of senior rank, had the unglamorous economy and industry portfolio - to be inherited by Mr Smith.

Mr Atkins, MP for South Ribble, entered Parliament in 1979 and served as a junior minister for sport, roads, and trade and industry before moving to Northern Ireland. A key aide of Mr Major's during the leadership contest, he and his wife, Dulcie, spent 10 days on a narrow boat holiday in 1987 with John and Norma Major, talking cricket and political prospects.

But the genial and bluff Mr Atkins has had mishaps. Last January he was fined pounds 800 and disqualified from driving for three weeks after admitting speeding at 71mph in a 30mph zone. His duties included road safety at the time.

Last February he was reported as startling a female reporter by asking if she was 'wearing tights or stockings'.

In his new post Mr Atkins will have charge of 'green issues', including a Bill paving the way for an Environmental Protection Agency. He will also be involved in the controversy over bathing water standards, possible privatisation of the Forestry Commission and the drive against 'red tape' in areas such as pollution control.

The announcement was delayed because of difficulties contacting Mr Atkins and Mr Ancram who are on a parliamentary ski-ing holiday in Switzerland.

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