Blair Reshuffles Cabinet After Election Losses

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 6, 2006

LONDON, May 5 -- Prime Minister Tony Blair fired Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and other senior ministers in a major cabinet reshuffle Friday after the Labor Party's poor showing in local elections that were widely seen as a referendum on Blair's government.

With the most extensive purge since he took office in 1997, analysts said Blair was trying to revitalize his government and prove he is not a lame duck despite his statements that he will not seek a fourth term.

The removal of Straw, who has enjoyed strong relations with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was a surprise. Some analysts cited tension with Blair concerning Iran's nuclear program -- at a time when Britain and the United States are trying to pressure the country, Straw has publicly called a military attack on Iran "inconceivable."

With the purge, "Blair has pulled out the dagger for the first time and wielded it with gay abandon," said Ben Page, managing director of Ipsos MORI, a polling firm. By elevating several long-trusted allies, he is signaling to skeptics in the public and within his own party "that he is still absolutely serious about trying to deliver on the remaining parts of his legacy."

Other analysts called the reshuffle an act of desperation from a leader whose approval ratings are at all-time lows. Tim Knox of the Center for Policy Studies, a research group set up by former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, called it "the act of someone who has lost touch." He said Blair should step aside: "What on earth is he trying to say? What on earth can he hope to achieve?"

The big victor in Thursday's election was the rival Conservative Party, which won about 40 percent of the vote for more than 4,000 local offices nationwide, the party's best showing since 1992. Initial projections showed Labor and the third major party in British politics, the Liberal Democrats, with about 26 or 27 percent each.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown told the BBC that the results were a "warning shot" for the government. "We have got to show we are listening to people's concerns and we are going to respond to them," said Brown, who would presumably succeed Blair as prime minister if Blair were to step down before the end of his term, a subject of frequent speculation. "We have now got to renew ourselves as a party to deal with the challenges ahead."

Analysts here said that while Straw had committed no obvious blunders in office, his stance on the Western allies' confrontation with Iran undermined his standing at 10 Downing Street. Bush and Blair have maintained that all options remain on the table in dealing with Iran. But in addition to calling an attack inconceivable, Straw has called the reported consideration of a U.S. tactical nuclear strike on Iran "completely nuts."

Straw was also perceived in the British political world as being too closely aligned with Brown to suit Blair. The Labor Party is frequently divided into "Blairites" and "Brownites" who have attached their political futures to one of the two powerful men, at once partners and intense rivals. Straw will take over as the Labor Party's leader in the House of Commons, a clear demotion. The new foreign secretary will be Margaret Beckett, a low-profile Blair ally who heads the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Beckett, Britain's first female foreign secretary, has led many of Britain's efforts to implement the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

For the British public, the most dramatic move was the firing of Home Secretary Charles Clarke, a close Blair ally who had fought to keep his job after disclosures that more than 1,000 foreigners convicted of crimes, including murder and rape, were not deported after completing their prison terms. As the cabinet member in charge of domestic security, Clarke accepted responsibility for the situation.

Blair told reporters he was sorry to lose Clarke, but said, "I felt that it was very difficult, given the level of genuine public concern, for Charles to continue in this post."

"Although I do not agree with that judgment, I entirely accept his right to make it," said Clarke, who will be replaced by Defense Secretary John Reid, a blunt-spoken Scotsman and trusted Blair loyalist.

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