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Blair’s ruthless shuffle after poll debacle

London, May 5: The men in India’s South Block will now have to deal with Margaret Beckett, 63, who was today appointed Britain’s first woman foreign minister by Tony Blair, who carried out a brutal cabinet reshuffle following a disastrous performance by the Labour Party in local government elections yesterday.

Beckett is often seen in a sari, of which she has a reasonable collection. She piles her hair up high in the style of Princess Anne, whom she resembles. There is little risk of Beckett, who has held many senior ministerial jobs, including most recently secretary of state for Defra (environment, food, and rural affairs), having affairs, foreign or otherwise ' she and her husband, Lionel Beckett, are devoted to each other.

John Prescott, who brought humiliation on himself and on Labour by having a tawdry affair with his secretary, was punished. He keeps his horse but lost his kingdom today. He retains the title of deputy prime minister and deputy leader of the Labour Party, but has been stripped of responsibility for running the huge office of the deputy prime minister which had been specially created for him.

The home secretary, Charles Clarke, whose department had failed to deport dangerous foreign criminals once they came out of prison ' one is wanted for the shooting of a policewoman ' was sacked.

There was no promotion for Keith Vaz, who once had to step down as Europe minister, or any of the Labour MPs of Asian origin.

Although Blair’s reshuffle was ruthless, he was, in a sense, putting old wine into old bottles. Jack Straw has been shunted from the foreign office to be leader of the Commons, a job which had been given to Geoff Hoon when he had made a mess at defence.

Hoon now takes over as Europe minister, while the defence secretary, Dr John Reid, who has held several jobs in the last couple of years, including Northern Ireland and health, replaces Clarke at the home office.

Only yesterday, Clarke received a pat in the Commons from Blair. Many interpreted the gesture to mean that Clarke’s job was safe. But Blair is a Prime Minister whose own position is far from secure.

Clarke’s “stabbing” brought a quip from a political observer who recalled how Jeremy Thorpe, a former Liberal leader, had described Harold Macmillan’s “Night of the Long Knives” cabinet reshuffle: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life.”

Yesterday’s local government elections are being seen as a test of Blair’s and the government’s popularity. One of the BBC’s political correspondents, Rita Chakrabarti, said the Labour Party had lost 262 councillors and control of 11 councils. It was the “party’s worst night since 1992”.

Another Indian woman, Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty ' and with hair as fiercely short as Chakrabarti’s ' commented: “Mr Clarke may feel harshly judged today but for his anti-free speech and ID card laws and for instituting punishment without trial, our children may judge him even more harshly tomorrow.”

The Conservatives won 40 per cent of the popular vote and the Liberal Democrats 27 per cent, while Labour was pushed into third place with 26 per cent.

The Tories did badly in northern cities but David Cameron, their leader, clearly thinks the Conservatives are losing their image as “the nasty party” considered to be against immigrants, gays, lesbians and anyone who is not white and middle class.

Cameron said: “I think the Conservative Party has broadened its appeal under my leadership. We really are a modern, compassionate alternative. We see a Labour Party that is in some sort of serious meltdown.”

From India’s point of view, Blair and Manmohan Singh have signed a joint declaration and it is not clear whether Cameron would be as interested in India. The fact is that many Labour MPs want Blair to step down immediately and handover to his heir apparent, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

If Labour is to win next time ' Blair has promised he will step down before thenext election ' his successor has to have time to reverse the feeling that thisgovernment is in its dying days.Brown warned that last night’s results had been a “warning shot” from thevoters to the party. He spoke of the need for “renewal” ' which some took as aplea for Blair to go.One worry trend is the rise of the extreme anti-immigrant British NationalParty, which won 11 of the 13 seats it fought in Barking and Dagengham in theEast End of London.Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, a trade union, said: “It is a verysad day for race relations with the BNP making gains. Labour must share some ofthe blame for that. Ordinary people have become disaffected and are beingseduced by the false claims and promises of these extreme racistorganisations.”

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