British PM Blair faces country with revamped government


LONDON, AFP

British Prime Minister Tony Blair faced the country Saturday with a new-look government charged with initiating key pledges of public service reform after the Labor Party’s landslide general election win.

Blair unveiled his reshuffled cabinet a day after his historic victory Thursday.

The new team was picked to modernize the country and help the premier govern for a second full term, a feat Labor has never achieved in its 100 years.

In a surprise move during the ministerial switch, the europhile Robin Cook was ejected as foreign secretary, to be replaced by ex-interior minister Jack Straw. The move was seen as a message that Blair will not rush into the euro.

Former education minister David Blunkett was named as Straw’s replacement as interior minister in a reshuffle which saw most of Blair’s frontbench team moving to new jobs.

Gordon Brown, who has successfully managed the economy over the last four years, remains as chancellor of the exchequer.

Chastened by a campaign in which he was scolded for not delivering on his promises, Blair avoided triumphalism and promised to knuckle down to a program of “radical reform”.

In a virtual re-run of its election victory four years ago, Labor swept aside a limp challenge from the opposition Conservative Party, whose leader William Hague fell on his sword and announced his resignation.

The only sour note for Blair was the feeble turnout, which at less than 60 percent was the worst since 1918, the product of widespread voter apathy.

After Queen Elizabeth II formally invited him to form the next government, Blair said: “It has been a remarkable and historic victory.

“But I am in no doubt as to what it means. It is a mandate for reform and investment in the future and it is also an instruction to deliver.”

On Britain’s relations with Europe, Blair spoke of “changes” that needed to be made. “These changes will not be easy,” he added, in an apparent reference to the impending political battle over British membership of the euro.

The premier is in favor, providing key economic tests are met and the public backs the move in a referendum.

Though he made no direct mention of the single currency, others interpreted Blair’s resounding victory as a sign he would press on with a referendum within two years.

The pound weakened to a new 16-year low against the dollar at 1.3775 dollars Friday, as financial markets anticipated the devaluation of sterling that would be needed before it could enter the euro-zone.

Straw’s appointment as foreign minister was interpreted by the national press as a sign that Blair will not bounce the public into the European single currency.

Cook has been seen as one of the strongest supporters of early British entry into the euro. Straw is regarded as one of the more cautious members of the cabinet on the issue.

In other changes, Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, criticized over his handling of Britain’s foot-and-mouth outbreak, was given a newly-created post as Minister for Work.

Across the Irish Sea, meanwhile, European integration was suffering a setback as Ireland rejected the European Union’s Treaty of Nice in a referendum which was marked by an unusually low turnout.

Labor won 413 seats in the 659-seat lower house of parliament. That left it with an overall majority of 167 seats, only six fewer than in the last parliament.