August 4, 2008 3:00 am
Gordon Brown is set to axe the "part-time" post of Scotland secretary in an autumn cabinet reshuffle, ending the controversial job share carried out by Des Browne, defence secretary.
Mr Browne's dual role has been described as "an insult" by former defence chiefs and Conservatives, who claim he should be devoting all his energy to helping the armed forces, particularly those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The prime minister has ordered Cabinet Office officials to draw up plans to wrap up the Scotland job in a new position: secretary of state for nations, taking in Wales and Northern Ireland.
The move would underscore Mr Brown's commitment to "Britishness" and end explicit cabinet representation for parts of the UK that now have devolved administrations.
The new nations secretary would deal with Westminster's relations with the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, while Paul Murphy, Welsh secretary, and Shaun Woodward, Northern Ireland secretary, would see their jobs disappear.
Mr Woodward is highly regarded by Mr Brown and may be promoted - possibly to a wide-ranging role presenting government policy - in a reshuffle which is now expected later rather than earlier in September.
Mr Woodward has told colleagues his work in Northern Ireland will be done once policing is handed over to elected politicians in the province. His aides say "significant progress" has been made although talks will continue during September.
Mr Brown's aides have been damping down speculation of a shake-up in the first week of September, saying the prime minister wants to get it right and consult widely before acting in what could be a crucial moment for his premiership.
He will be in Beijing in late August for the Olympics, while the Trades Union Congress annual meeting and Labour party conference in mid-September will also compete for his attention.
However, any delay would heighten speculation that Mr Brown was preparing for major surgery on the cabinet. Much of the speculation will focus on whether Alistair Darling, chancellor, will stay in post, and whether David Miliband, foreign secretary, will be punished for his manoeuvring for the Labour leadership.
Separately, Jack Straw, justice secretary, could be rewarded for his loyalty if he refuses to lead a delegation of senior cabinet ministers to tell Mr Brown to quit in the interests of the party.
However, senior government figures say one certainty is that Mr Browne's uncomfortable dual role will end and with it the longstanding cabinet position of Scottish secretary.
Liam Fox, shadow defence secretary, has said: "The fact he divides his time between fighting the SNP [Scottish National party] and fighting the Taliban is an insult to all our fighting men and women - and hardly a compliment to the Scottish people."
If a new super-ministry for the nations is created, it could be awarded to Jim Murphy, Europe minister, who has won Mr Brown's admiration for his handling of the European Union Lisbon treaty bill.
Mr Murphy would be entrusted with taking the fight to the SNP, which confirmed its supremacy north of the border last month by winning the Glasgow East by-election.
Contrary to some speculation, government officials say no work is being done by the Cabinet Office on adding the English regions to the work of a new super-ministry.
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