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Monday, 11 October, 1999, 17:07 GMT 18:07 UK
Blair's big surprise
Peter Mandelon: Taking one of the toughest jobs in government
By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

The prime minister's surprise decision to bring fallen minister Peter Mandelson back into the cabinet and promote a number of Blairite ministers is further proof of his iron grip on his government.

Cabinet reshuffle
Despite constant reports of strains between him and his Chancellor Gordon Brown and his difficult relationship with his deputy John Prescott, he has brushed aside their likely concerns and brought his favourite politician back into the fold.

Neither man will have relished the idea of Mr Mandelson's early return - both are alleged to believe his rehabilitation should have been left until after the next election - but the prime minister has overruled them.

And he has sent out the clearest possible message to Mr Mandelson's critics and others that he runs the show and will do it his way.

Tony Blair: Iron grip
He ditched cabinet enforcer Jack Cunningham, who was criticised for never really getting to grips with his brief and doing little to kill off his image as "junketing Jack", replacing him with former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam.

Dr Cunningham had been seen as the great cabinet survivor. Every time there was a reshuffle his name topped the list of those old guard ministers tipped for the chop. But this move almost certainly marks the end of his government career.

Dr Mowlam was always believed to have relished the health secretary's job, but will probably be happy with Mr Cunningham's job as second best.

She believed it was time to move on from Belfast but wanted a "proper" job to step into. Whether this one fits the bill remains to be seen.

She will be expected to be "minister for the Today programme" and present the right public image for the government, particularly when its policies are under fire.

She will also have to keep ministers in line and her personal, down-to-earth and trustworthy style will be a major advantage in that role.

Mr Blair also made the surprise promotions of Geoff Hoon, who replaces George Robertson as defence secretary, and Andrew Smith, who moves to the Treasury.

Neither men had been widely tipped for their new jobs, with Dr Cunningham and Scottish Secretary John Reid topping the list of those fancied for the defence job.

Once again Mr Blair defied all the speculation and did it his way, putting young allies into key jobs.

However, the reshuffle will be overshadowed by the return of Mr Mandelson after only 10 months in exile.

The prime minister has risked a backlash by ending his punishment so swiftly but has given the former trade secretary the most difficult job in cabinet at a particularly sensitive time.

Mr Mandelson is still relatively untested as a front-line politician and his reputation may now be tied irrevocably to the future of the stalled Northern Ireland peace process.

There is little doubt that he is a formidable back room operator and there is much of that in Northern Ireland politics.

But unlike virtually all his predecessors, he has no experience of the brief, and will have to spend some time getting to grips with the intricacies of the portfolio.

He also has a knack of making enemies and, as in the case of General Pinochet, making the occasional controversial, off-the-cuff remarks.

The job is also likely to be so demanding that he will have little time to offer Mr Blair the support he craves.

The move will also be seen as a nod by the prime minister in the direction of the Unionists who had been demanding Mo Mowlam's head for months. The UUP even went so far recently as to suggest Mr Mandelson as a replacement.

The major reshuffle came after the prime minister appeared to hesitate from big changes earlier in the summer and raises several questions about its timing.

Originally it was expected to be relatively small scale, concentrating on replacing outgoing Defence Secretary George Robertson.

But Health Secretary Frank Dobson's belated change of heart over the job as London mayor ensured it would be wider.

Few believe Mr Blair did not have a hand in persuading Mr Dobson to stand as a Labour candidate in a bid to stop Ken Livingstone, even if only through third parties.

Many believe it was Mr Dobson's original refusal to contemplate joining the race that postponed the big reshuffle earlier in the summer.

Once he had stood firm Dr Mowlam, who fancied his job, made it plain she no longer wanted to leave Belfast.

There is now open speculation that Mr Dobson was finally made "an offer he couldn't refuse" - to do his master's bidding and stand against Mr Livingstone or lose his cabinet job anyway.

That killed two birds with one stone. It gave the prime minister a fighting chance of beating Mr Livingstone and it allowed him the chance to carry out his planned reshuffle.

The decision to bring back Mr Mandelson will still cause controversy, however.

There are many on Labour's backbenches who will be furious that he has not been punished with a longer period in exile.

And his presence will always risk re-opening the claims that he and former colleague Geoffrey Robinson - both of whom resigned last December over the "loans-for-homes" row - were the victims of a long-running battle between the Blair and Brown camps in the cabinet.

See also:

11 Oct 99 | Talking Point
11 Oct 99 | N Ireland
11 Oct 99 | UK Politics
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