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Blair Rounds Out Cabinet, Emphasizing Diversity

Britain: Panel of leaders includes record number of women and the first openly gay minister.

May 04, 1997|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair completed a Cabinet of Labor Party friends and allies here Saturday on his first full day in office, as the British government smoothly slipped into new leadership after nearly two decades of Conservative Party rule.

There were few surprises as the 43-year-old Blair, getting down to work at 10 Downing St., filled the last posts in the 22-member Cabinet. The list includes a record five women and the first openly gay person to sit in a British Cabinet: Chris Smith as heritage minister.

For the key post of Northern Ireland secretary, Blair turned Saturday to the pugnacious and outspoken Marjorie Mowlam, who recently recovered from surgery for a benign brain tumor. She went immediately to Belfast, where all-party peace talks are moribund and Sinn Fein demands entry without a new cease-fire by its armed wing, the Irish Republican Army.

The Education Department was scrambling in the transition, as a team of readers with high security clearances was being assembled to read documents onto tape for Education Minister David Blunkett, who is blind.

Blair, who dragged Labor from its leftist roots to the political center, balanced right and left in his Cabinet choices. Free-speaking Clare Short's appointment as minister for international development will please the party's left, for example.

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Other women named include Trade Secretary Margaret Beckett, Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman and Ann Taylor as leader of the House of Commons, a key parliamentary job. Other appointments Saturday included George Robertson as defense secretary, Donald Dewar as Scottish secretary and Ron Davies as Welsh secretary.

The quick transition in part reflects the British system, under which the party in opposition--where Labor languished for 18 years--appoints "shadow" Cabinet ministers who become experts in a particular department and its policies. For example, Robin Cook, who will oversee Britain's foreign affairs, had been shadow foreign minister since the Conservatives took power in 1979.

The Conservatives, humbled at the polls, suffered a new setback Saturday. Michael Heseltine, former Prime Minister John Major's deputy and a strong potential successor as party leader, suffered what was described as a mild angina attack.

After the attack Heseltine decided he would not seek the Tory leadership, Conservative headquarters reported. Analysts expect a messy succession fight in a party discouraged by a defeat of historic proportions and divided over Britain's role in a united Europe.

Amid the settling political dust Saturday, there was time as well for housekeeping. Blair and his wife, Cherie, concluded that the two-bedroom apartment above the prime minister's office at 10 Downing St. is too small for them and their three school-age children. So they may move next door to 11 Downing St., which has five bedrooms and three bathrooms and is the usual residence of the finance minister.

Gordon Brown, the new finance minister, is one of the Blair family's closest friends, so an apartment switch is unlikely to provide the new government's first crisis.

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