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Last Updated: Monday, 10 November, 2003, 19:27 GMT
Howard's balancing act

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

He said he wanted to lead the Tories from the centre.

Michael Howard
Howard has tried to balance his top team
And Michael Howard has clearly attempted to balance his radically slimmed down shadow cabinet to keep everyone in his party happy.

Indeed new Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin, himself from the liberal wing of the party, has claimed the new team is a "rainbow" of the talents.

There have certainly been some significant appointments in the overall ministerial team, with top jobs to relatively new faces from the different wings of the party - including David Curry, John Bercow, Andrew Lansley and even Nicholas Soames.

But when it comes to the top team itself - the elite guard as they are already being dubbed - some will wonder where the leading lights of the Left are, and will claim it still hails from the centre right of the Tory party.

Elite team

Leading left-winger Francis Maude - Michael Portillo's chief of staff - is particularly conspicuous by his absence for example.

Oliver Letwin
Letwin sees a rainbow
And this is the attack already being warmed up by the Labour party, which is also claiming the decision to merge health and education is a clear sign that a Tory government would chop public services.

There will also be continuing questions from opponents about the wisdom of slashing the shadow cabinet in half, leaving some of the most senior spokesmen outside the elite team.

Window dressing

One way Mr Howard has attempted to unite the party is with the creation of an advisory "council of elders" which will not only include all three previous leaders, but the biggest beast of the Left, Kenneth Clarke.

Yeo gets two departments
Whether this is anything more than window dressing, only time will tell.

But Mr Howard genuinely appears to have tried to live up to his pledge to lead from the centre.

The risk is, that by creating a tiny top team, he will also have angered both wings of the party who will feel they have been left out.

Well, at least that is balance of a sort.

And one thing is abundantly clear, this shadow cabinet reshuffle leaves no doubt about who is the first amongst the elite.




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