If this minor reshuffle is so controversial, there can be only one conclusion

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Tony Blair's latest attempt to reshuffle his government is becoming as chaotic and muddled as the previous two: the reshuffle that never happened in the summer and the one the year before, when his convoluted changes had not been properly thought through. The current situation is especially damaging, as it is more obvious than usual what Mr Blair should do.

Tony Blair's latest attempt to reshuffle his government is becoming as chaotic and muddled as the previous two: the reshuffle that never happened in the summer and the one the year before, when his convoluted changes had not been properly thought through. The current situation is especially damaging, as it is more obvious than usual what Mr Blair should do.

The Cabinet lacks charismatic personalities. Few ministers have the self-confidence to show a robust interest in the development of policy. The former Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, is one of those rare politicians who performs well in the media and has been a policy innovator, daring to think radically. The fact that he failed to act in a bold manner when he was in the Cabinet was not his fault. He got caught in the endless power struggle between the Prime Minister and his Chancellor. Since resigning from the Cabinet, Mr Milburn has delivered several thoughtful speeches about the development of policy.

The current Labour chairman, Ian McCartney, has performed an important function engaging with increasingly disaffected trade union leaders and party activists. Not surprisingly, several union leaders want Mr McCartney to keep his job. He has been a mediator during a rough period that included the aftermath of Mr Blair's calamitous decision to support the war against Iraq. Even so, in a pre-election period a governing party needs to turn outwards and communicate effectively with the wider electorate. Mr McCartney is a poor communicator. Nor is the Labour Party machine performing as effectively as it once did. For all its problems, there have been times in recent months when the Conservative Party appeared to be functioning with greater professionalism. Mr Blair should therefore make the obvious pre-election change and replace Mr McCartney with Mr Milburn, regardless of any rumblings of discontent from his neighbour in Downing Street.

In making such a provocative move, Mr Blair should not make matters more explosive by placing one of his closest allies in the Department for Work and Pensions, a vacancy made available by the resignation of Andrew Smith, a close ally of Gordon Brown. The Chancellor is wary, with good cause, about vague statements from Blairites about the need for the Government to be more radical on welfare. There is no indication of deep policy thinking to accompany these woolly briefings to trusted commentators.

These modest moves should not be impossible. They should not even be especially controversial. The fact that they would be explosive leads to a single conclusion. For a variety of reasons, this is a government that has complacently lost its way. There are no great ideological divisions to compare with those that virtually destroyed the Labour Party in the 1970s and early 1980s. Members of the Cabinet, and those who might be brought back, are largely pragmatic figures. Mr Milburn is not a right-wing Thatcherite. Mr Brown is not an Old Labour conservative. It should not be impossible for them to work together in the Cabinet, whatever their differences in the past.

Mr Blair has returned from his holiday in messianic mood, usually an ominous sign heralding clumsy policy announcements. Mr Brown seems determined to fight his corner rather than keep his head down for the sake of Cabinet unity. The Conservatives, who have had a terrible summer, must be pinching themselves; for them, this is an unexpected bonus to the pre-conference season. The Liberal Democrats, sensing victory in the forthcoming Hartlepool by-election, are also making the most of the ministerial feuding as their stock rises in the opinion polls.

At his press conference yesterday, Mr Blair claimed that ministerial changes were based on merit rather than any other considerations. He had the grace to smile at the end of this declaration. As he struggles to find a way through his latest reshuffle, it seems that merit is almost the last factor on his mind.

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