Blair fires senior Cabinet members

Shuffling follows party's poor showing in elections


LONDON -- Reeling from his party's poor showing in local elections, British Prime Minister Tony Blair fired several senior ministers from his Cabinet yesterday in a sweeping reshuffle intended to reassert his authority and silence party members who want him to quit.

But his most powerful colleague, rival and heir-apparent - Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer - distanced himself from the reshuffle, saying he had not been consulted. Brown also described the voting results as "a warning shot" that showed the Labor Party needed to be "renewed."

Frank Dobson, a junior Labor legislator, was more dismissive still, telling Sky News that Blair's reshuffle only amounted to "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." The opposition leader, David Cameron, who has led a rejuvenated Conservative Party this year, told reporters: "It will take more than a reshuffle. What we need in this country is a replacement."

Blair dismissed Charles Clarke as home secretary and stripped Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott of his department, although not his title. Scandals involving the two ministers - widespread criticism for his agency's release of foreign prisoners in the former case and an extramarital affair splashed across the tabloid media in the latter - were seen as having damaged the Labor Party in the run-up to Thursday's elections. The balloting was held to select more than 4,000 members for 176 councils across England.

But more unexpectedly, Blair also turned on the rest of his team. He demoted Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, with whom he had disagreed at times over policy toward Iraq and Iran, to leader of the House of Commons. Geoff Hoon, until yesterday the leader of Commons, and chief whip Hilary Armstrong also were demoted.

Blair sacked Labor Party chairman Ian McCartney. And he reshuffled more than half of the rest of the Cabinet to ensure he was surrounded by stalwart loyalists in key positions.

By lunchtime, Margaret Beckett, until yesterday the loyal, left-leaning environment secretary known for preferring camping vacations in Britain to overseas travel, had been named the new foreign secretary. Straw learned he was to have the less glamorous job of running the lower house of Parliament. Scottish lawyer John Reid, one of Blair's closest allies, was moved to home secretary and replaced as defense secretary by Des Browne.

The scale of the reshuffle took even ministers and aides by surprise, said Anne McElvoy, political analyst and executive editor of the Evening Standard London daily. She quoted a former Cabinet figure as calling it the "May massacre."

Thursday's vote deprived Labor of 16 of the 39 councils it previously held and left it with 251 fewer council members, a worse result than the moderate losses Blair had expected. The Conservatives, the main opposition party, claimed victory in 63 councils, a gain of eight, while acquiring 249 more council seats. The Conservatives conquered traditionally Labor-voting London.

The results prompted Blair to rush ahead with a reshuffle that had originally been intended for later.

Clarke had spent more than a week fighting demands from opposition leaders that he quit. He was under siege in part because his Home Office had released more than 1,000 foreign-born prisoners without considering deportation, and some broke the law again.

The turmoil of recent days has given Blair's already restive Labor colleagues new impetus to call for his resignation. After leading the party to a third general-election victory last year with a much-reduced majority, Blair promised to stand down before the next general election, due by 2010. The party, worried by the rejuvenation of the Conservatives, has waited to see whether Blair would give a further sign of when he might go.

Vanora McWalters writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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