Labour reshuffle: PM's presentation disaster

Andrew Grice@IndyPolitics
Thursday 29 July 1999 23:02

AN APPARENTLY boring reshuffle with no blood on the floor of the Cabinet Room turned out to be much more interesting as Tony Blair carried out sweeping changes amongst junior and middle-ranking ministers yesterday.

But that did not hide the fact that Wednesday's "night of the short knives" was a presentational disaster for a prime minister who is normally a past master of the art of media manipulation.

Big events such as Budgets and reshuffles should be a gift for the spin- doctor; knowledge is power and so a tiny inner circle holds all the cards.

The media-baiting by Downing Street in advance of the non-Cabinet reshuffle - dismissing speculative reports as "garbage" - has backfired. The press does not like having its tail tweaked, and always has the last word. Yesterday's newspapers gave Mr Blair one of his worst press days since becoming Prime Minister.

For once, the Opposition's ritual attacks scored a bullseye: it seemed that Mr Blair had really "flunked" it, putting a question mark over his trademark "strong leadership."

Last night Downing Street insisted the media had got it wrong, clinging desperately to the line that he had never intended to change his Cabinet line-up at this stage.

We should take that with a bucketload of salt. The pivotal moment in this reshuffle came on Monday when it emerged that Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, was already on holiday.

Surely, that was the time to hose down rather than fuel the speculation about cabinet-level changes by saying nothing. Some ministers are convinced that the explanation is that Mr Blair still intended to make cabinet changes, and that he only backed away when he turned his mind fully to the shake- up on Wednesday.

In the end, the balance for Mr Blair tipped in favour of shelving big changes until later this year or early next year. One factor in this is that, despite the promises that John Prescott's unwieldy Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will not be broken up, Mr Blair is likely to hive off part of it to a new rural affairs ministry around the end of this year. By then, Peter Mandelson will have served a full year in the wilderness and could be brought back into the Cabinet, perhaps as Northern Ireland Secretary, after Ms Mowlam has given the peace process a final push. Labour's candidate for Mayor of London will also be selected by then, resolving the vexed question of whether Mr Blair can persuade Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, to run.

So it is unlikely that the "good team", as Downing Street described the Cabinet last night, will be the one which Mr Blair takes into the general election. His vote of confidence is a rather half-hearted one. Ministers such as Jack Cunningham, Margaret Beckett and Chris Smith may have won only a temporary reprieve.

Another reason for delaying big changes at the top is that there were few middle-ranking ministers knocking hard at the Cabinet Room door this time. Mr Blair hopes to address this "generation gap" by blooding potential cabinet members, such as Geoff Hoon and Peter Hain at the Foreign Office, and Neil Kinnock's former backroom team of Charles Clarke (promoted to the Home Office) and Patricia Hewitt, now in charge of e-commerce at Trade and Industry. They are all modernisers and, if they do well in their new jobs, could play a significant role in a second term Labour government.

Downing Street denied that the uncertainty over thechanges had created "paralysis" in Whitehall. But some ministers say their departments had virtually ground to a halt, with key decisions put off.

Mr Blair has cleared out the ranks of his junior and middle-ranking ministers in an attempt to give his government a sharper edge. He hopes the new, younger team will be more successful at tackling what he calls the "departmentalitis" which still afflicts Whitehall.

He wants cross-departmental "joined-up government" to tackle the big problems facing the Government, but the civil service culture is still based on turf wars, winning Treasury cash and parliamentary time for new laws. "Tony believes the system in Whitehall is slowing us down on delivering on public services," one close ally said last night. "The job of the new ministers is to get results by the next election."

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