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U.K.’s Blair reshuffles Cabinet after poll losses

Prime Minister Tony Blair fired his law and order chief Friday and chose a new foreign secretary in a wide-ranging Cabinet shuffle a day after his party took a pounding in local elections.
Britains new Home Secretary Reid leaves number 10 Downing Street in London
John Reid, Britain's new Home Secretary, leaves Prime Minister Tony Blair's residence in London on Friday after a Cabinet reshuffle. Luke Macgregor / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Prime Minister Tony Blair fired his law and order chief Friday and chose a new foreign secretary in a wide-ranging Cabinet shuffle a day after his party took a pounding in local elections.

The Labour Party pulled 26 percent of the vote to the Conservatives 40 percent, a result that renewed calls from some quarters for the prime minister to step down.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke, embroiled in a politically damaging furor over the failure to deport foreign criminals, confirmed that Blair had removed him from office. Defense Secretary John Reid was moved to the Home Office, and Des Browne was promoted from chief secretary at the Treasury to secretary of defense.

Blair removed Jack Straw as foreign secretary, replacing him with Margaret Beckett, who had headed the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She becomes the first woman to hold the job.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who admitted an affair with a secretary, will keep his title but was stripped of the responsibilities of his department, which include housing and planning.

“I felt that it was very difficult, given the level of genuine public concern, for Charles to continue” as home secretary, said Blair, who days earlier had defended Clarke as the right man to deal with the prisoner issue.

Clarke said he had turned down offers of other government posts. “I do not think it would be appropriate to remain in this government in these circumstances,” Clarke said in a statement.

Conservatives emerge as winners
The shake-up appeared aimed at demonstrating Blair still holds a firm grip on his beleaguered government after weeks of negative headlines and scandal.

“It’ll take far more than a reshuffle,” Conservative Party leader David Cameron said. “What we need in this country is a replacement of the government.”

“I think what we have seen over the last few hours is that while the Labour Party is collapsing, the Conservative Party is building,” Cameron said as he toured London to celebrate his party’s gains in the local elections.

Glenda Jackson, a former Labour government minister who has been a persistent critic of Blair, joined the calls for him to go. “The problem for the party and its government is its leader,” she said.

Thursday’s vote was widely seen as a referendum on Blair’s government, and Cameron emerged as the main winner.

“I’m a happy man this morning,” said Cameron, who took over the party in December.

Labour took 1,065 seats in incomplete counting, down 251 seats compared with the results of the last election. The Conservatives won 1,567 seats, a gain of 249. Labour lost control of 16 local councils — including some boroughs in London — and the Tories gained eight.

The far-right British National Party won 13 seats.

Calls for Blair to step down soon
Labour also did badly in the 2004 local vote but that didn’t stop Blair from leading the party to its third straight national election victory a year later — albeit with a reduced majority in the House of Commons.

Treasury chief Gordon Brown, the main expected to succeed Blair, said voters were concerned about issues of crime, terrorism and their financial and job security. “We’ve got to show in the next few days, not just in the next few weeks, that we are sorting these problems out,” he told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Voters in Thursday’s elections chose representatives to fill 4,360 seats in 176 local authorities across England, a little less than half of all English councils. London was the biggest battleground, with elections in all 32 boroughs.

Labour’s poor showing was likely to embolden those calling for Blair to step down soon or at least offer a timeline as to when he may leave office.

Most Labour members of Parliament “are saying now that we’ve got to get the party under new management. It ought to happen fairly soon,” said Frank Dobson, who was health secretary in Blair’s first Cabinet.

The government’s acknowledgment last week that officials had failed to screen 1,023 foreign criminals for deportation before freeing them from prison over the past seven years was particularly damaging.