Helen Liddell in the Press

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Deputy gunning for SNP


HELEN Liddell yesterday took a short walk up Whitehall from the Treasury to Dover House, the Scottish Office's London HQ, and back into the rough house of Scottish politics where the Prime Minister wants her as Labour's saviour in next year's historic Holyrood elections.

Tony Blair ordered her home to mastermind Labour's counter-attack against the rampant SNP and rewarded her with the title of Deputy Scottish Secretary. As of today, she is also co-ordinator of Labour's fighting machine for May's Scottish general election, which could determine Scotland's future in the UK.

The Prime Minister also held out the prospect of Mrs Liddell succeeding Mr Dewar as Secretary of State for Scotland when he presents himself for election as Scotland's First Minister.

Mrs Liddell is now set to become the first woman and probably the last individual to hold the post of Scottish Secretary as a Cabinet-ranking appointment before it loses that status - raising a question mark over her own future - when the Scottish Parliament is up and running.

In contrast with Mr Blair's Government reshuffle in England, where his choices strongly reflected New Labour's tightening grip, the changes in Scotland were driven by urgent electoral expediency.

The Prime Minister, puzzled and worried by Labour's struggle in Scotland while it enjoys record popularity in England, was given strong encouragement by Mr Dewar, a close friend of Mrs Liddell, to exploit her proven managerial skills in the coming campaign which promises to be bruising and prolonged.

As of yesterday she is Labour's campaign co-ordinator, and she wasted no time setting the scene for the coming battle which she sees as a crusade to save the Union with England. "The phoney war is over," she told reporters.

"This is serious politics. This is about our children's future. I do not want to see Scotland torn out of the UK."

After only four years in the Commons but a lifetime fighting Labour's battles in Scotland the sharp-tongued Mrs Liddell, daughter of a Coatbridge bus driver, is seen by Mr Blair as the ideal weapon in pegging back the Nationalists' lead in opinion polls.

But the SNP made a virtue of saluting Mrs Liddell's return as the perfect opportunity to ridicule her position as MP for Airdrie and Shotts, the epicentre of the Monklands sleaze saga, and her former life as spokeswoman for the late Robert Maxwell in the criminal tycoon's heyday as a vicious strike-breaker who erected razor wire to smash the unions in Glasgow.

SNP publicity convener Nicola Sturgeon cast up Mrs Liddell's reported protest that she would have to be "dragged kicking and screaming" from London back to Scotland.

However, Mrs Liddell is a battle-hardened campaigner who as general secretary guided Labour in Scotland through three General Elections including the 1987 contest when the party had its greatest ever success in Opposition, winning 50 of the 72 seats.

Her greatest triumph was in beating off the Nationalist challenge in the late John Smith's seat. But Labour managers must have winced at last night's glimpse of the future as television pictures recalled her speaking up for Maxwell and being hugged as a hero by Tommy Graham outside the Commons.

Mrs Liddell inherits a party which has spent recent months reorganising itself with a new general secretary, new media team and a new economics adviser with the job of targeting what Mr Blair derides as the SNP's "Alex-in-Wonderland spending plans".

On the famously padded shoulders of the woman known variously as Mary Poppins and Stalin's Grannie and, sometimes more affectionately, as Nellie, rest Labour's hopes of forming the first government in Scotland in almost three centuries.

Whether she is up to the task is now a central question in Labour circles still surprised by the forced departure of Brian Wilson, the forceful Scottish education and industry Minister. Mr Wilson's reputation as a ferocious Nat-basher was cause for some to wonder why he was being moved.

But as one of only two St Andrew's House Ministers not standing for Holyrood, it was clear that he stood in the way of Mrs Liddell's return.

Mr Wilson's move to the Department of Trade was predictable because it means he will be back working closely with Peter Mandelson, the new Trade Secretary, who is now in the Cabinet where Mr Blair has long wanted him, but still in touch with New Labour's tough media relations policy.

Mr Wilson was widely blamed for Labour's clumsy handling of the Sean Connery knighthood affair; his record as Education Minister was tarnished by the university fees issue, an embarrassment not of his making; and he had troubles as Industry Minister defending the effects on Scottish industry of the strong pound at a time of growing concerns over Scotland's dependence on inward investment.

Last night there was still no word of which portfolios Mrs Liddell will be given. Her appointment as deputy to Mr Dewar makes her senior to Henry McLeish, the home affairs Minister.

A hint of Mrs Liddell's style with the SNP, which infuriates Labour by claiming to be "Scotland's party", came when she played the patriotic card herself. "I love my country and I am proud of my country and I want my country to have the best, but looking at the kind of programme the SNP have, I'm deeply worried about my country's future." - July 29