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Wednesday, 29 April, 1998, 16:42 GMT 17:42 UK
Is Blair a butcher?
By Huw Edwards, the BBC's Chief Political Correspondent
Nerves are twitching in the Cabinet Room - and no wonder. New Labour's robust spin-doctoring means that the likely victims have been warned of their fate. Frequently. And very publicly. By the time MPs embark on their two-month summer break, some ministers will be ex-ministers. And there is nothing so "ex" as an ex-minister.
MPs are eagerly awaiting the biggest event in the parliamentary calendar. Forget the Budget. Forget the Queen's Speech. I'm talking about something far more interesting. The Reshuffle. It will come in time for new ministers to settle in before the summer parliamentary recess, ready to face the party conference season and a new Westminster term in October.
Offering a few tips for the chop isn't too difficult this year. New Labour is a rather leaky vessel. The Comrades are in many cases at each others' throats, and briefing frantically against eachother. It might surprise you to learn that MPs have been anticipating The Reshuffle ever since Labour was elected on May 1st last year.
Backbenchers hope for promotion, ministers hope to stay in office (though perhaps in a better job), and a few cabinet ministers suffer the indignity of being tipped for the drop from the moment they're appointed.
Gavin Strang (Transport) and David Clark (Public Service) have been attacked by so many colleagues (off the record of course) that it would be a glorious feat if they survived. They are both, in my view, extremely hardworking and decent ministers. This probably won't be enough to save them in this age of New Labour presentation and "rebranding".
Clare Short (International Development) will be relying on her popularity among voters and Labour members to cling on to her place, though some of Mr Blair's closest friends think she's a loose cannon.
And let's not forget a potentially spectacular casualty. Harriet Harman is a big mate of Gordon Brown's, but her less than sure handling of the tricky Welfare portfolio has cheered up her opponents no end. Her relations with Brown have been patched up, but Number Ten still thinks she's made a hash of things. She might well stay in cabinet, but in a lesser role.
This section wouldn't be complete without a mention of the Lord Chancellor. Derry Irvine's DIY problems have been extensively talked about, not least by Labour MPs displaying the kind of venom reserved at Westminster for enemies on your own side. Irvine is far too valuable and close to Blair to be moved. But his political stock is low, and he needs to rebuild. Fast.
The top four, however, are totally safe. John Prescott, Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and Robin Cook have all performed to Mr Blair's satisfaction, give or take a few ups-and-downs. Mr Blair seems happy to forgive Mr Cook his disastrous bout of bad publicity after evident domestic problems.
But Jack Straw, especially, has emerged as one of Mr Blair's most trusted colleagues, and is seen to have performed far better than expected in the difficult role of Home Secretary. His prominent role in the New Labour roadshows, and his inclusion in the ministerial team that met Bill Clinton prove the point. He handled his son's drug problem very successfully, and defused matters before they inflicted serious political damage.
Others who have impressed include, perhaps surprisingly, Jack Cunningham at Agriculture. His firm handling of the BSE issue has upset farmers, but Mr Blair thinks he's an extremely competent minister.
There should be room for a few promotions into the cabinet. The obvious candidates include Alan Milburn, a former close associate of Gordon Brown's, whose stern-faced defence of the government's health policies has earned brownie points.
Another serious Blairite, Stephen Byers, has pleased his master at Education. And Helen Lidell, a formidable woman whose career has included working for Robert Maxwell, has impressed Mr Blair with her work as a Treasury Minister.
Watch out too for the ultimate Blairite, Peter Mandelson, currently Minister without Portfolio. Mr Mandelson is more than keen to enter the cabinet, and it might be time for Mr Blair to give him a "proper" job - in other words, a department to care for. The current betting is, however, on a roving role taking in the Cabinet Office.
One or two have been unexpected successes, and early predictions of failure have proved inaccurate. The "Old Labour" figure of Frank Dobson, for example, has proved very effective at Health. This has caused some indigestion for New Labourites.
It is often stated that Prime Ministers don't like sacking people, especially those they consider their friends. They somehow manage it, however. Even Margaret Thatcher was reportedly queasy at the prospect of sacking ministers. Allow me to share a secret with you. Tony Blair will not be remotely queasy.
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