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Blair Unveils New Gov't amid Prospect of Challenge

British Prime Minister Tony Blair unveiled his third-term government at the start of perhaps the most crucial week of his political career, amid talk of a possible challenge to his leadership.

In a minor shake-up of junior ministerial posts, Blair promoted several key allies alongside other faces who are more closely linked to finance minister Gordon Brown -- the man seen as most likely to succeed him when he steps down.

The changes come four days after the governing Labor Party was returned to power at a general election, but with a sharply reduced parliamentary majority.

Despite mutterings that Blair should retire early even though he has pledged to serve a full term, the prime minister risked ruffling more feathers by making one of his key policy advisers a minister.

Andrew Adonis was appointed junior education minister with a seat in the House of Lords, the upper house of parliament.

In another move likely to raise a few eyebrows, wealthy Labor Party donor Lord Drayson, the pharmaceuticals tycoon, became junior defence minister.

Key members of the Brown camp, however, also enjoyed a boost, with Yvette Cooper, wife of the chancellor's former special adviser Ed Balls, appointed as minister for housing and planning, while another loyalist, Nigel Griffiths, was made deputy leader of the House of Commons.

A number of familiar faces also returned to prominence, including former immigration minister Beverley Hughes who, after quitting last year over a visa scandal, was named children's minister.

And Lord Hunt, who resigned from the government as junior health minister over his opposition to the Iraq war, came back as a junior minister in the department for work and pensions.

The new parliament is due to reconvene for the first time Wednesday when Blair will make a crucial speech outlining his plans for a third term and arguing against the perception he is becoming a lame duck leader.

But one Labor MP pledged Monday that he would challenge Blair for the party leadership if the prime minister did not stand down by the time of the Labour Party annual conference in September.

Lawmaker John Austin said he would consider putting himself forward as a so-called "stalking horse" -- a no-hope challenger whose bid would seek to draw out more serious leadership contenders.

Labor was returned to power for a historic third consecutive term in Thursday's general election with a parliamentary majority of 67, far below the 167-seat margin seen in the last vote in 2001.

Although the majority is healthy by historical standard, a series of Labor lawmakers -- among them a number who lost their seats -- have complained that Blair's unpopular decision to back the US-led Iraq war of March 2003 cost them thousands of votes.

The prime minister announced last year that he planned to serve one final complete term in office before departing, most likely in favor of his popular Chancellor of the Exchequer Brown.

But a number of Labor lawmakers, conscious that opinion polls have shown Brown to be a far more popular figure with the public than Blair, have demanded that this process happen sooner.

Austin said Blair should consider standing down after the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, in July.

"He has said he won't lead the party into a fourth election. I think, I and many colleagues think, it would be better if he went sooner rather than later, to allow his successor to establish himself," Austin said.

A posse of Blair loyalists rushed to his defence over the weekend. They were joined Monday by Peter Hain, a political heavyweight appointed to the key Northern Ireland portfolio in a post-election reshuffle.

In a further consolation to Blair, whatever the travails facing his own party, the main opposition Conservatives are currently in far more disarray following their third consecutive election loss.

(Chinadaily.com via agencies May 10, 2005)

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