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Last Updated: Friday, 5 May 2006, 11:36 GMT 12:36 UK
Reshuffle seeks to rejuvenate
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

As Tony Blair executed the nearest thing he has ever come to a "night of the long knives", Labour MPs were pondering a couple of key questions.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
Reshuffle aims to end speculation over Labour leadership
Is the surprisingly radical government reshuffle actually the renewal and rejuvenation they have been pressing for to take them through to an historic fourth term in office?

Or is it, as former minister Frank Dobson has suggested, simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic when what is needed is a new man at the helm?

The prime minister has acted swiftly, almost brutally, in an attempt to both switch attention away from the damaging local election results - which it may well succeed in doing - while also suggesting he is recasting a government that still has plenty to do, with him firmly at its head.

To that extent, it was being seen by some as a suggestion that he has no plans to go anywhere soon.

Critics, on the other hand, claim his axe wielding is a sign of panic in a man beset by problems and who knows he is losing his authority and his grip on power.

It is certainly noticeable that Mr Blair has moved to place his most trusted loyalists in the most important cabinet posts - John Reid, Margaret Beckett and Hazel Blears forming a sort of Praetorian Guard around their emperor. Even John Prescott keeps his key cabinet fixer role.

Most trusted

That is not to say Mr Blair has exiled Brownites, giving a number of them big jobs in what might be seen as the skeleton of the next, Brown-led cabinet, but that he has still formed a new top team of his most trusted friends.

Charles Clarke
Clarke is the biggest loser in reshuffle
For example, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, demoted to Commons leader, has not faced any particularly unusual criticisms of late but the prime minister has decided he needs a fresh face representing Britain abroad.

His replacement, Margaret Beckett, is the safest possible pair of hands and a hugely experienced minister - the only woman leader the party has ever had, albeit only briefly after the death of John Smith, and now the first woman foreign secretary.

She even served in Jim Callaghan's last Labour government and has never shown the slightest sign of disloyalty to Tony Blair, who can rely on her absolutely.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke has paid the price for the foreign offenders row despite all the prime minister's recent protestations of support but, when offered other cabinet posts - even it is rumoured, foreign secretary - refused them to return instead to the backbenches.

He insists he will remain a loyal and supportive MP but the fact Mr Blair could not keep him on board will only add to the feeling he is losing his authority.

And Mr Clarke will certainly prove a significant figure on the backbenches and may yet play an important part in the ultimate resignation of the prime minister.

Twin titles

He had previously been suggested as a potential leadership contender himself and his sacking certainly does not rule that possibility out.

Margaret Beckett
Beckett becomes first woman foreign secretary
Once again, his replacement is a key, tough Blair loyalist - in this case John Reid who has now held a series of the top government jobs and is viewed as Mr Blair's fireman, used to douse down forest fires in Whitehall departments.

Deputy prime minister and party leader John Prescott, beset by stories over his affair with his secretary, may have kept his twin titles but he has lost all his departmental responsibilities.

That is largely because both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown see him as a crucial bridge between them and the best, possibly only man who can help a smooth transition of power between them.

But it is also to avoid a party election for the post of deputy Labour leader, which he also continues to hold, which could have provided a divisive and damaging contest.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Ruth Kelly whose job came under concerted fire several months ago over the lack of controls on paedophiles, has also been replaced with trusted rising star Alan Johnson while she takes over Mr Prescott's old portfolio.

He will now have the formidable task of taking the prime minister's controversial education bill through its difficult parliamentary stages.

And Mr Blair has kept Patricia Hewitt as health secretary in defiance of union demands for her to be sacked.

But none of this answers the crucial question of whether this blood-letting will succeed in its main task of drawing a line under a terrible two weeks for the prime minister and head off any moves against him by his rebellious MPs.



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