Yeo on cloud nine

By Graham DinesPolitical EditorSUFFOLK South MP Tim Yeo is one of the three big winners as new Conservative Party leader Michael Howard last night unveiled his slimmed down front bench team.

By Graham Dines

Political Editor

SUFFOLK South MP Tim Yeo is one of the three big winners as new Conservative Party leader Michael Howard last night unveiled his slimmed down front bench team.

Mr Yeo assumes the huge responsibility of combining the health and education portfolios, while David Davis takes over home affairs with Oliver Letwin shadowing Chancellor Gordon Brown.

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But the three Essex MPs in Iain Duncan Smith's Shadow Cabinet – Bernard Jenkin (North Essex), John Whittingdale (Maldon & Chelmsford East) and Eric Pickles (Brentwood & Ongar) – have lost their top jobs in charge of defence, culture, and local government respectively.

Mr Jenkin becomes Shadow Secretary of State for the Regions, Mr Whittingdale takes on the Agriculture brief, and Mr Pickles retains local government – but none of the posts are in the shadow cabinet.

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The major rejig is aimed at demonstrating the difference between Tony Blair's New Labour, which has expanded government and the civil service dramatically in the past six years, and Howard's Way – less interference by the state.

However, it risks alienating Tory MPs, fewer of whom will now have front-line, high profile jobs.

Mr Yeo said his appointment was "a big opportunity to get the message across to voters that the Conservatives care passionately about the key public services – and there are none bigger that hospitals and schools."

Mr Yeo, 58, who has been South Suffolk's MP since the 1983 General Election, said: "I shall be building on the work of my two predecessors, Liam Fox at Health and Damian Green at education.

"In opposition, only a limited number of people can become well known faces to the public, and that's one of the reasons the Shadow Cabinet has been reduced to just 12.

"By combining the health and education portfolios, Michael Howard has ensured that I shall have a major say in the development of our policies and how we can convince the British people that we mean business."

Mr Yeo had made it know he would like to become party chairman. "Because he knew that, Michael rang me on Sunday to inform me of the decision to appoint joint chairmen. He then offered me the combined role of education and health which I am delighted to accept."

Although out of the Shadow Cabinet, Mr Jenkin said he was "delighted" to be playing a part in the party's revival and its "rescue of Britain from this failing Labour government."

He added: "The Shadow Cabinet is a much smaller body and I recognise that Michael Howard wants the space to include a broad spectrum of opinion."

He said his regions brief would ensure that he was able to promote the message that the Tories were the party for the whole nation and all Britons as it opposed Labour's regional agenda.

Mr Howard's second major surprise, following his decision to split the party chairmanship between Dr Liam Fox and Lord (Maurice) Saatchi, was to limit the number of people sitting in the Shadow Cabinet to 12.

Dr Fox ran Mr Howard's successful leadership campaign – he eventually emerged unopposed – while Lord Saatchi was the new leader's right-hand man in the Lords as Conservative Treasury spokesman when Mr Howard was shadow chancellor.

Theresa May, who lost the party chairmanship in the shake-up, will take over the transport and environment portfolios, thus ensuring her public profile remains high in the run-up to the next General Election.

Mr Howard's commitment to Kenneth Clarke that a big hitter on the Euro-left of the party would be included in the Shadow team was fulfilled with David Curry's appointment as local government spokesman, working alongside Mrs May.

David Maclean, who stood down as Conservative Chief Whip after Iain Duncan Smith sacked by MPs two weeks ago, has been re-appointed.

Mr Howard announced that former Prime Minister John Major, former leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, and Kenneth Clarke had agreed to advise him on Tory policies and relations with party nationwide.

Dr Fox was ecstatic that he has landed the plum job of overhauling the creaking election machine at Conservative Central Office.

He said he would "take charge of re-invigorating the party's media operation, its campaigning wing and its policy unit so that we have both the policies and the means of communicating them to lead us into and through the next general election."

He added: "We are back in the big game of politics – the Conservative Party has a new sense of purpose. We are moving forward on policy and I think that voters will increasingly find we have credible alternatives to a failing and high taxing Labour government which has betrayed them on almost every policy front."

n Mr Yeo's appointment was revealed on the EADT's Internet site at 11.58 yesterday morning, five hours ahead of the official announcement from Conservative Central Office.

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