Helen Liddell in the Press

Ah'm oot o' stinkin Scotland agin. Its Bluddy Magic ye ken!

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Heir non-apparent installed

by BENEDICT BROGAN, Political Editor

OOPS! So much for the quality of our political punditry. We tip Helen Liddell to take over as Scottish Secretary, and the job goes to John Reid. Our only consolation is that she was as stunned as her Westminster colleagues.

As for the folk at the Scottish Office, civil servants must have rushed for the Who's Who yesterday to find out more about their new boss, so certain were they that the steel magnolia of Scottish politics would stay in the building. Let's just hope they held off printing the new notepaper with her name on it.

So why has Tony Blair confounded expectations and appointed John Reid, one of his Government's stars, to a job which, while diplomatically important, is no longer in the political premiership?

The decision, taken just in the past few days, reflects Downing Street's concern that the devolutionary settlement is throwing up too many problems, too early.

Labour's failure to secure an overall majority, and the unsightly back-room haggling to forge a deal with the Liberal Democrats, have brought home to Downing Street the importance of putting a trusted fixer in the linch-pin role between Holyrood and Westminster.

Helen Liddell's qualifications for the pared-down Scottish role - that she knows the brief and was already there - ultimately were not enough to secure the post. Despite last minute lobbying by Donald Dewar on Saturday, she was deemed to have a few too many enemies, notably among those close to Gordon Brown, to be able to forge useful links with the entire panoply of Labour's Scottish camps.

John Reid, by contrast, is a valued loyalist who has carved a niche as a canny operator who delivers for the leader. He is not linked to any camp, and he is an ubiquitous presence in Scottish political meetings and the Commons tea room.

The former communist - a group which knows a thing or two about absolute loyalty - was instrumental in delivering the Clause Four reform for Mr Blair before the election.

Despite carpet denials from his friends that he wanted to abandon his Transport brief for Scotland, Dr Reid has been manoeuvring - "fiendishly" according to one source - for the job.

Quite why he has discovered an enthusiasm for a post which will command just 48 civil servants and comes with few trappings - Mr Dewar is keeping Bute House - has mystified his colleagues.

He impressed many with his handling of the truckers' dispute and is a favourite to succeed George Robertson as Defence Secretary when the time comes, but Scotland?

At Transport, a post he took up reluctantly after being moved from his beloved Ministry of Defence, Dr Reid had to work under the vengeful shadow of John Prescott, who does not take kindly to being shown up by his junior Ministers. Last night he was said to be "livid" about Mrs Liddell's appointment.

So was she stitched up in a Brownite plot in revenge for the disputes that overshadowed the Holyrood campaign? The Prime Minister told her yesterday the appointment was designed to get her back into the Westminster mainstream.

When he dragged her out of the Treasury last year and sent her North to "bash the Nats", Mrs Liddell extracted an assurance that the move to Scotland would not harm her ministerial chances on the UK stage.

For his part, the Chancellor denies playing a role in Mrs Liddell's last-minute bump to Transport, and all the signs are that Downing Street and the Treasury acted together to send Dr Reid to Scotland.

At Westminster and among Mr Blair's advisers, there is a belated recognition that Scottish devolution is a more complicated beast than some Ministers were prepared to admit. However well things may have worked out in Scotland, there remains a transition to be accomplished in England, of which the report due in the Commons this week on the procedural consequences of devolution will be an early taste.

The appointment of John Reid to the new Scottish Office is a typically Blairite piece of realpolitik. The elections reminded him and Gordon Brown that they need a trusted ambassador and spy to fight the leadership's corner in Scotland, and to warn them when there is trouble afoot. - May 18 1999