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Blair Reshuffles Government After Local Election Loss
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The local elections for England, held once every four years, turned out to be as bad as the ruling Labor Party could imagine, with results showing on Friday that Blair's Labor has lost over 300 councilors whereas the opposition Conservative Party has gained almost as much.

The results, widely regarded as the worst in a decade, have dealt a heavy blow to Labor, which has been suffering a stream of scandals during the past two weeks, involving the release of foreign prisoners without consideration for deportation, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's extra-marital affair with his diary secretary and nurses' anger over the reform of National Health Services.

Dwarfed by the Conservative's winning under its new and young leader David Cameron, Blair simply refused to admit that his government is facing a "meltdown" as many predicted.

Shortly after the local election results came out early on Friday, the prime minister, who has won an unprecedented three terms in office, was engrossed in a major cabinet reshuffle.

And the results were revealing indeed, with Home Secretary Charles Clarke, who has been held responsible for the release of 1,023 foreign prisoners without any deportation consideration, being sacked to be replaced by former defense secretary John Reed; the scandal-ridden Prescott lost his departmental responsibilities, although he still held his post as deputy prime minister and deputy leader of the Labor Party.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was replaced by Margaret Beckett, who became the country's first ever female foreign secretary. Secretaries for education, transport, trade, environment all changed hands in what is viewed as a major reshuffle.

Before the local elections, there were reports that some of Labor's rebel members of Parliament had been preparing to launch a direct and highly damaging challenge to the prime minister if the party suffered heavy reverses in Thursday's local elections.

The rebel MPs who have given up hope of Chancellor Gordon Brow never launching a direct coup against Blair, wanted to force the prime minister to announce a public timetable for his departure within 12 months, or face being dragged through a leadership contest.

A public poll conducted by You Gov before the elections revealed that 57 percent of those interviewed said the government is sleazy and incompetent, while Tony Blair's personal rating was also at its lowest level since he became the Labor leader: 64 percent said he is doing badly.

"Governments fail and fall for a variety of reasons: serious economic problems, incompetence, running out of steam, being divided and scandals, and there have been splits at the top," said Peter Riddle, a political writer for the Times.

In his views, the row of foreign prisoners, the delay in payments to farmers, overpayment of tax credits, and hospital cutbacks despite record funding, have all given an impression of incompetence. But Britain's economy remains pretty strong and the big increase in public spending has boosted the income of Labor supporters in the public sector and those receiving tax credits.

"The question now is more about cohesion and resolve among Labor MPs and activists," Riddle said. "The real danger is of retreat from public service reform into the deceptively comfortable style of traditional Labor. That would be a gift to David Cameron."

According to Riddle, the key will be whether Blair appears in command of events and conveys a sense of fresh ideas.

The reshuffle showed that Blair is by no means giving up. He had spoken on several occasions that although he would not contest a fourth general election, he wouldn't stand down before reforms of the public services pull through.

Many analysts believed that the reshuffle, which is the largest scale possible without any consultation with Chancellor Gordon Brown, the prime minister to be, indicates that Blair wants to hold fast to his position after Labor's disastrous failure in the local elections. Blair has installed many of those he trusts, a sign that he refuses to hand over his power in an orderly manner to Brown.

It is reported that Blair and Brown are to meet over the weekend on the future of Labor. But as Riddle, Times political writer pointed out, although Blair is in the final stage of his premiership, the goodbye could still be far away.

(Xinhua News Agency May 6, 2006)

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