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Byers is tipped for key role in Cabinet

The schools minister has impressed the Government and is being linked with a senior role. Geraldine Hackett reports

The Government's determination to manage the presentation of its policies across all departments may provide a central role for Stephen Byers, the schools standards minister, when Tony Blair makes the first changes in his Cabinet.

The re-shaping of the Cabinet is expected to include the creation of a post similar to the Conservatives' party chairman and there is speculation the job might be offered to Mr Byers, who has impressed Blair's inner circle with his handling of the schools brief.

No 10 has already begun to recruit to a six-strong specialist unit that will centralise policy announcements and the Cabinet minister without portfolio would become the key broker between the major departments of social security, health and education.

The task would encompass the role currently carried out by Peter Mandelson, who may also be promoted to the Cabinet. Much of the speculation about the reshuffle, which could happen as early as the Easter recess, centres on the fate of Harriet Harman, the Social Security Secretarywho has borne the brunt of criticism over cuts in benefits to lone parents. Uncertainty also surrounds Gavin Strang at transport and David Clarke, the public services minister.

However, Mr Byers is being linked with either a Cabinet post as party chairman or a place at the table as schools minister. The job of party chairman does not bring with it a department of state and requires substantial skills in dealing directly with other senior ministers and Mr Byers might judge his ambition might be better served by retaining his education brief.

There appears to be an argument that a second Cabinet post in education would signal its importance. Such a promotion would mean David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, would be responsible for the Government's major Welfare to Work programme and further and higher education.

The job of party chairman is destined for an ultra-loyal Blairist, and the tally of rising stars includes not only Mr Byers, but Alan Milburn, at health, and Helen Liddell in the Treasury.

Any major re-shuffle of the Cabinet could be left until the summer when discussions of the major spending reviews across Whitehall are complete, but meanwhile the team in charge of presentation of policy, the strategic communications unit, is in place at Number 10, headed by Alun Evans, a career civil servant who was Mr Blunkett's principal private secretary.

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