British Prime Minister Tony Blair sacked his home secretary and moved other key ministers in a sweeping Cabinet reshuffle on Friday after voters punished his scandal-hit Labour Party in local elections.
Charles Clarke, a combative figure who had been under fierce pressure over his department’s failure to deport hundreds of foreign prisoners, was replaced as home secretary by John Reid, a key Blair ally who was defence minister.
Clarke was the most important casualty of the reshuffle triggered by local council elections in England on Thursday that saw the Labour Party suffer its biggest losses since Blair took power nine years ago.
Blair also replaced his defence and foreign ministers and stripped Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott — who admitted an affair with a secretary — of many of his responsibilities.
Speaking on television shortly after the news was broken, Clarke disagreed with Blair’s decision despite the furore over more than 1Â 000 foreigners who should have been considered for deportation after serving their jail time but were instead released back into the community.
“The prime minister, as is his right and responsibility, has made the judgement that my continued occupation of the post of home secretary is likely to stand in the way of continued reform that remains necessary,” he said.
“Although I do not agree with that judgement, I entirely accept his right to make it,” he told reporters.
Prescott, badly weakened by revelations of his extra-marital affair with a civil-service secretary 24 years his junior, hung on to his title but lost his responsibilities for housing and urban affairs.
Margaret Beckett was named as Foreign Secretary, replacing Jack Straw who becomes leader of the House of Commons, a key position responsible for pushing Blair’s controversial package of public-sector reforms through Parliament.
Geoff Hoon, who was defence secretary during the Iraq war, then leader of the House, becomes Minister of State for Europe — but in a new twist, he will keep his seat at the Cabinet table.
Those who have held that post in the past have only been considered junior ministers, reporting to the foreign secretary.
The sweeping reshuffle was seen as a clear attempt by Blair to reassert his authority as Labour slides in the opinion polls just a year after he led the party to its third straight general election victory.
Speaking on BBC radio, Brown acknowledged the results of Thursday’s local elections — in which Labour lost about 250 council seats while all its rivals made gains — were a “warning shot” from a frustrated electorate.
“We have got to [resolve our problems] competently, efficiently, and we have got to show in the next few days — not just the next few weeks — that we have sorted these problems out,” he said. “The renewal of the Labour Party must start now.”
Labour lost control of 16 town halls in England, and more than 250 council seats out of 4Â 361 up for grabs, while the main opposition Conservative Party enjoyed strong gains.
The BBC projected that, had Thursday’s elections taken place across Britain rather than just parts of England, the Conservatives would have had 40% of the vote, the Liberal Democrats 27% and Labour 26%.
Political analysts in Britain regard local elections — where the biggest issues are often neighbourhood policing, swimming pools and rubbish collection — as mid-term snapshots of a government’s popularity.
Turnout, always lower in local elections, was estimated at 36%.
“I think this shows the Conservative Party is broadening its appeal, that it’s attracting new voters, and I think we see a Labour Party that is in some sort of serious meltdown,” said the Tories’ youthful leader, David Cameron.
Adding to the humiliation, Labour lost its iron grip on the working-class east London council of Barking and Dagenham, where the small, anti-immigrant British National Party clinched 11 seats. — AFP