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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 21:55 GMT 22:55 UK

Cabinet in his own image

Nyta Mann

At no point in this parliament will Tony Blair be more powerful than he is now, at the moment of victory.

His second landslide allows him to refer any critics to his fresh mandate for reform - never mind that, as in 1997, it is a landslide of parliamentary seats rather than voters' ballots.

And Mr Blair could freely construct his first cabinet for the second term owing nothing whatsoever to any faction or interest group within Labour, save attending to the special relationship with his ally-cum-rival Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Consolatory bauble

That attendance was seen in the fact that Nick Brown, the chancellor's key lieutenant, survives in government as minister for work - out of the cabinet but with the right to sit in on its meetings - a consolation bauble that few believe would have been awarded were he not so close to his more senior namesake.

Jack Straw's rise to the Foreign Office is a reward for the hardline approach he took at the Home Office - hated by Labour's liberal supporters.

But Mr Blair considered it essential in order to retain the "tough on crime" approach that played such a great part in making his name as shadow home secretary before he became Labour leader.

The prime minister can be confident that Mr Straw's replacement as home secretary, David Blunkett, will not stray from that approach.

Cook loses 'big four' membership

Robin Cook's move from foreign secretary to leader of the House is a serious demotion and a further sign of the diminished standing of the man of whom so much was expected when Tony Blair first won office in 1997.

It also confirms his ejection from membership of Labour's "big four" - previously Mr Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Mr Cook.

It is a bitter blow to the man once seen as Labour's brightest, sharpest intellect.

The rise of women who have been knocking on the cabinet door for some time - Patricia Hewitt, former trade minister now appointed trade secretary; Hilary Armstrong, moved from environment to chief whip; Estelle Morris, up from education minister to the department's top job; and Tessa Jowell, taking over as culture secretary from the sacked Chris Smith - helps answer the criticism that Mr Blair failed to promote deserving female ministers in first last administration.

It also rewards a foursome seen highly able, effective and as having not once veered even slightly off-message during Mr Blair's first five years at Number 10 - a winning combination.

Charles Clarke, entering the cabinet as minister without portfolio and Labour Party chairman, is a more interesting case.

Like Ms Hewitt, he was a member of Neil Kinnock's inner circle when the European commissioner was Labour leader.

Mr Clarke has in recent years gone out of his way explicitly to reject the label of "New Labour" when applied to himself, deliberately treading a distinctive line as neither "old" nor "new".

Whether he continues to disavow the description the prime minister favours remains to be seen.

Gordon Brown stays - as expected

Gordon Brown's reappointment as chancellor, meanwhile, was entirely expected.

Not only is he central to New Labour and all its works, but the key achievements even the most Brown-wary Blairite trumpeted during the campaign - economic stability, low unemployment, increased spending on health and education - could all be claimed by Mr Brown.

The fate of his followers lower down the parliamentary scale will be closely watched by readers of New Labour Kremlinology for clues as to the current state of Blair-Brown relations - a recurrent theme of the first term.

That will become clearer over the weekend when junior government posts are appointed.



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