Why Blair Axed His Foreign Secretary

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"At our best when we're boldest," used to be Tony Blair's catchphrase. He'd better hope it's true after a brutal Cabinet shakeup in the wake of multiple scandals and poor local-election results. Blair's top scalps included John Prescott, who remained his deputy but lost his departmental responsibilities, and Home Secretary Charles Clarke. But why did Blair demote Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to a job running the House of Commons? Perhaps Straw's efforts to cozy up to Blair's likely successor Gordon Brown rankled, but he's generally considered an effective minister with excellent relations in Washington and European capitals. His replacement is Margaret Beckett, formerly the Environment Secretary, who lacks a background in foreign policy.

A Downing Street source says Blair wanted to reward Beckett for her unflashy competence. Straw already had five years in the job and had been aiming to lead the Commons — though not quite yet. The source stressed the importance of Straw's new job, which includes cleaning up the election-funding system and finishing reform of the House of Lords. But many insiders viewed the demotion as a move by Blair to wrest even more power away from the Foreign Office, especially over Europe policy. This chimes with suspicions that Blair is trying to create a de facto but supercharged Prime Minister's department, allowing him a freer hand in areas important to his legacy.

But another reason for Blair to bump Straw, says a longtime Labour aide, is Straw's slightly more dovish attitude toward Iran, "a nuance that is deeply felt" in Downing Street — where, despite a pledge to step down this term, Blair wants to stay in charge as long as he can.