- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

LONDON — Stung by an election defeat, British Prime Minister Tony Blair shuffled his Cabinet yesterday and replaced Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in an attempt to save his own political future and shore up support to tackle crises in Iran and Iraq.

Mr. Straw had privately expressed doubts about the Iraq war to his boss and publicly took a different stance on Iran. He described military action against Tehran as “inconceivable,” something neither Mr. Blair nor President Bush would say, and called reports that the Bush administration has contingency plans for a tactical nuclear strike “nuts.”

Margaret Beckett, a Blair loyalist who has been serving as environment secretary, takes over the Foreign Office, becoming Britain’s first female foreign secretary. Mr. Blair’s officialspokesman said the change did not mean a shift in foreign policy.

Two ministers at the center of a series of recent government woes were also fired or demoted.

But critics said it is Mr. Blair himself who should step aside after voters deserted his Labor Party in local council elections Thursday. The results — Labor won 26 percent of the vote to the Conservatives’ 40 percent — were widely seen as a referendum on Mr. Blair and his troubled government.

“It’ll take far more than a reshuffle,” said opposition Conservative leader David Cameron, whose long-sidelined party was reinvigorated by its strongest electoral showing since 1992. “What we need in this country is a replacement of the government.”

The Conservatives made a net gain of 310 seats and Labor lost a net of 306, out of 4,360 seats up for grabs on 176 local councils across England. The far-right British National Party won 27 seats.

Yesterday’s Cabinet shake-up was Mr. Blair’s biggest ever and an effort to reassert his dwindling political authority.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke, embroiled in a politically damaging furor over the failure to deport foreign criminals, lost his job and turned down other Cabinet posts, deciding instead to leave the government.

Mr. Blair had defended Mr. Clarke over the prisoner controversy, but said yesterday: “I felt that it was very difficult, given the level of genuine public concern, for Charles to continue.”

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott kept his title despite an admission of an extramarital affair with his secretary — and tabloid reports that the two had trysts in Mr. Prescott’s government office. But he was stripped of the responsibilities of his department, which include housing and planning.

In other changes, John Reid left his post as defense secretary to replace Mr. Clarke, and Des Browne left the Treasury to head the Defense Ministry.

The appointment of the 63-year-old Mrs. Beckett came as a surprise. She is a veteran politician and loyal to Mr. Blair, but has little experience in foreign affairs beyond her participation in international climate-change talks.

In August 2002, though, Mrs. Beckett was one of the most senior critics of a prospective U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq, raising concerns about the impact an invasion would have on the Iraqi population.

Mr. Straw was moved to the far less prominent job of leader of the House of Commons and takes responsibility for overhauling the House of Lords and campaign-finance reform, two big issues.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had joined Mr. Straw on a trip to Baghdad last month, called to wish him well. “She has had an excellent working relationship with him,” and the two will remain friends, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, adding that Miss Rice looks forward to working with Mrs. Beckett.

The government’s troubles have prompted calls that Mr. Blair step aside soon and let his likely successor, Treasury chief Gordon Brown, take over as prime minister.

Mr. Blair, who turns 53 today, was re-elected to a third term last year with a drastically reduced majority. He has said he will not run again, but intends to serve his full third term.

A group of Labor lawmakers were drafting a letter urging Mr. Blair to outline a “firm and fixed timetable” for an early departure from office, Channel 4 News reported.



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