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banner Friday, 5 May, 2000, 10:23 GMT 11:23 UK
What future for Dobson now?

Tony Blair may cast Frank Dobson adrift
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

For Frank Dobson's mayoral ambitions, it must have been the final blow.

On the eve of the poll, two of Britain's New Labour supporting newspapers - the Daily Express and, more importantly, the Daily Mirror - told their readers to vote for the Tory Steve Norris.

The shock pronouncements may have stunned Mr Dobson, but they accurately reflected a growing trend amongst Labour bosses in the last few days of the party's disastrous election campaign.

Privately, senior party figures had started to whisper that the first preference vote would go to their man, but that the all-important second choice would be cast for Mr Norris.

There were even those who said they would rather vote for Mr Norris as their first choice than back Mr Dobson and, by doing so, allow Ken Livingstone an easy victory.

It was pretty desperate "stop Ken" stuff and came at the fag end of a campaign that had seen Labour bosses frantically trying to distance themselves from Mr Dobson as he stumbled from one crisis to another - often as a result of Labour bungling.

And it showed that there may be little thanks heading Mr Dobson's way now that he has been so roundly defeated.

Great sacrifice

So the big question now that the inevitable has happened is - where does Dobbo go from here?

Reports that he will be back in the cabinet as soon as the prime minister can find him a slot, possibly during a summer mini-reshuffle, have been dismissed by Labour sources.

They point to Mr Blair's past record of not bringing former cabinet ministers back into the fold, no matter how great a sacrifice they have made.

Other suggestions that Mr Dobson will be sent to the House of Lords have also been brushed aside.

And it is quite possible Mr Dobson would not want such a move yet anyway.

There is little doubt that he is monumentally cheesed off with the Labour machine for damaging his campaign.

He is also said to be angry with Mr Blair for bullying him into standing in the first place and then doing only the minimum to support him once it was clear he was about to lose.

It is now commonly accepted that, at the end of last summer, he was warned by Blair aides that, if he refused to stand, he would be sacked from the cabinet anyway.

Sniping at government

And it is this pent up anger that may decide Mr Blair's attitude towards Mr Dobson's future.

The last thing he wants is another senior and highly-respected figure sitting on the backbenches sniping at the government - he has already got Peter Kilfoyle doing a good job of that.

All Mr Dobson has said is that he intends to return to the backbenches and continue serving as MP for Holborn and St Pancras.

And it seems highly unlikely he will want to move outside politics as a Blair appointee to some quango or other.

So, while Mr Blair may not offer him a job out of gratitude for his loyalty in standing, he may be persuaded to do so out of fear of the consequences of leaving him on the backbenches.

Mr Dobson may have been hugely loyal to New Labour and so far shown little desire to rock the boat.

But he has a strong Old Labour streak running through him and, if the grassroots criticisms of New Labour continue, he may find that streak coming to the fore.

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