Shadows lengthen over future of Caborn

Minister's reaction may prove expensive. But Alan Hubbard says he should not be jettisoned
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Richard Caborn did not seem like a dead man walking when he stepped up to present a host of worthies with their cheques and plaques at Lord's on Thursday night. In doing the honours at the annual Sportsmatch Awards he displayed his usual jauntiness and even chuckled when the chairman, Stuart Errington, in introducing him, said of England's rugby triumph in Sydney: "I only wish I had been there to see it, but then, I'm not alone in that."

The understandable pique which followed Caborn's enforced absence from the final when ordered back by panicking party mandarins to make up the numbers in the Commons vote on foundation hospitals may, by all accounts, cost the Sports Minister his job. Apparently Tony Blair was "profoundly unimpressed" with Caborn's reaction, and it seems that while Jonny Wilkinson was getting the drop on the Aussies, "sources close to the Prime Minister" were already briefing political scribes that Caborn would be kicked into touch in a January reshuffle.

Caborn, a gruff but eternally amiable cove, dismisses it as "paper talk", but unfortunately for him there might be more to it. No one is niftier at leaping aboard a bandwagon than Blair, unless it is Caborn's immediate boss, the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, who flew out to take his seat at the final, and is said to be "not happy" with the Sports Minister.

The word is already about that some ministers would like to see a more rugby-friendly figure at the sports ministry now that the sport's profile has rocketed. Caborn, surely the fittest 60-year-old in the House (he regularly runs half-marathons) has never visited Twickenham as minister and is much more a football man, a passionate fan and former director of Sheffield United. But rugger buggers are thin on the Labour playing field. The best-known, Derek Wyatt, a former England international, was also in Sydney, and the story goes that he, like Caborn, was asked to return. But when he said that he would be voting against the bill, he was told: "In that case you'd better stay where you are."

Andy Reed, MP for Loughborough, who still plays club rugby, might be considered if forgiven for his rebellion over Iraq. Other candidates could include Workington's Tony Cunninghham, who has played, refereed and coached both union and league, and Everton supporter Andy Burnham. Watford season-ticket holder Clare Ward, a Guardian sports columnist, surely would be ruled out as she does not support the London Olympic bid.

Caborn would not claim to be the best sports minister Britain has ever had, but he is decent and well-meaning, and has not done that bad a job since he found his feet. He knows his limitations, and importantly, most people in sport are comfortable with him, as was evident at Lord's. Rugby man or not, Caborn made it clear he believed England's acquisition of the World Cup may have enabled sport to turn the corner after years of running up blind alleys. It was, he said, "absolutely fantastic", He added: "The lift that this has given sport generally is superb. It shows what can be done when you have a proper programme, which rugby had even before they won the cup. It will elevate sport in its totality. I think we are moving into a golden era for sport in this country and the rugby success has been the catalyst for this."

How shameful then that the Sports Minister was not allowed to be there to tell the players that at the time. Instead he had to be content to meet them off the plane when Sweet Chariot arrived back on Tuesday morning. It must have been galling for him to see his opposite number, Lord Moynihan, disembark with them, having joined in the in-flight celebrations. Jowell, it seems, was unable to get on board. This time, Caborn's seat had already gone.

Unseating him from office now would send out all the wrong signals, especially to the still-sceptical International Olympic Committee, who remain unconvinced that this government's commitment to sport is more than cavalier.

What Blair's hoarse whisperers fail to grasp is that sport, from the IOC to the grass-rooters, much prefer the what-you-see-is-what-you- get approach of Caborn to the saccharine soundbites of the Culture Secretary.

Of course his pal John Prescott will be in there punching for him, but will this be enough to save him from a new-year KO? Caborn says what happened in Sydney has helped put sport "right at the heart of the political agenda" for London's Olympic bid in 2005. This is one vote for which he will welcome a summons.