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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 May, 2005, 10:33 GMT 11:33 UK
Howard challenge to apprentices
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

It is as though Michael Howard has cast himself in the role of entrepreneur Sir Alan Sugar and sent his own band of apprentices out into a winner-takes-all contest to prove themselves against their Labour opposite numbers and defeat their colleagues.

The outgoing shadow cabinet
Out with old and in with new shadow cabinet

And when Mr Howard quits at Christmas, and after they have completed a series of testing challenges, the Tory party will decide which ones to hire and which ones to fire.

Like the popular TV programme "The Apprentice" the shadow cabinet members have been thrown into a pretty brutal fight to best their Labour opponents and rise above their own party colleagues.

Some will pass, but others will undoubtedly hear those devastating words: "You're fired."

Undoubtedly the most notable frontbench appointment is that of young gun George Osborne to the post of shadow chancellor at the age of just 33.

He has one of the toughest challenges handed down by Mr Howard - facing Labour's biggest beast, Gordon Brown, across the despatch box.

Like the TV show, it will be sink or swim - a golden opportunity or a poison chalice.

Young star

He is joined on the Tory frontbench by virtually the entire list of leadership hopefuls.

One of the already proven candidates is re-tread MP Malcolm Rifkind who is highly experienced, having previously served as both foreign and defence secretaries in previous Tory governments, before losing his seat in 1997.

Another rising young star and former policy supremo David Cameron has been promoted to the job of shadow education secretary.

George Osborne
Osborne will take on Brown
He and Mr Osborne have often been described as the Blair and Brown of the Tory party and as potentially offering just the same sort of renewal of the opposition that Blair and Brown wrought on Labour.

Liam Fox has moved from being party chairman to become shadow foreign secretary and David Willets will shadow Alan Johnson in the new department of productivity, energy and industry.

And one of the front runners for the leadership, David Davis, remains as shadow home secretary. This is already a high profile job and he will continue to take on Charles Clarke in the key area of law and order and immigration and asylum.

Meanwhile, former leadership contender Michael Ancram has been moved from foreign to the defence brief.

Opposite numbers

These are all big jobs and by giving the top leadership candidates such heavyweight portfolios, Mr Howard has given them their head.

Those who swim will have their leadership ambitions boosted while any who sink will enter the contest at a distinct disadvantage or may even drop out altogether.

David Cameron
Cameron was policy chief
The reshuffle also means that much of the energy these individuals would be pouring into their leadership campaigns will now be channelled into their Commons jobs.

It will give them that added encouragement to take on their government opposite numbers and, if at all possible, best them.

As a result, Mr Howard will hope that the government, suffering from a vastly reduced majority, will be given an increasingly hard time in the Commons as ministers battle to get Tony Blair's programme onto the statute books.

He will also undoubtedly hope that he has offered the party just the opportunity they are looking for to choose a successor from a wide, experienced and fresh slate.

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