Tony Blair has tried to extend his tenure in Downing Street by carrying out his most sweeping cabinet reshuffle since he came to power nine years ago.
The Prime Minister deflected attention from poor results for Labour in Thursday's council elections by sacking Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, demoting Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and stripping John Prescott of his departmental duties. But the reshuffle did not head off demands for Mr Blair to announce his own departure timetable.
The shake-up fuelled tension between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown, who was not consulted about the changes outside his Treasury team. The Chancellor struck a markedly different tone to Blairites by describing the council results as "a warning shot" and calling for "renewal".
Labour lost 319 seats, the Tories gained 299 and the Liberal Democrats made a disappointing three net gains. The Conservatives were the undoubted winners, securing 40 per cent of the votes, with the Liberal Democrats on 27 per cent and Labour on 26 per cent.
While it was intended as a show of strength, the reshuffle raninto controversy. The Tories questioned how Mr Prescott could keep his £134,000 salary and two homes even though his Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is gone. With more revelations about his affair with his diary secretary, Tracey Temple, expected tomorrow, Mr Prescott pulled out of a television interview to be with his wife, Pauline.
Mr Straw accepted his demotion to Leader of the Commons but the man he replaced, Geoff Hoon, was furious when Downing Street said his new job as Europe minister would not carry voting rights in the Cabinet and that his salary would be cut to £98,000. Friends said he may walk out and suggested that, like Mr Straw, he had been punished for forging links with Mr Brown.
The biggest victim was Mr Clarke, after Mr Blair judged that a fresh face at the Home Office was needed to limit the damage from the release of more than 1,000 foreign prisoners without being considered for deportation.
Mr Clarke was offered two other cabinet posts Defence and Trade and Industry but was refused a request to become Foreign Secretary. " I have been sacked from this job of Home Secretary," Mr Clarke said. "I do not think it would be appropriate to remain in government."
The biggest winner was Margaret Beckett, who becomes Britain's first female Foreign Secretary. Other winners included four Blairites: John Reid, who becomes Home Secretary; David Miliband (Environment); and two women promoted to the Cabinet, Hazel Blears (Labour chairman) and Jacqui Smith (chief whip). Ed Balls, a long-time Brown ally, was made Economic Secretary to the Treasury.
The losers included Ian McCartney, the Labour chairman, who becomes Trade minister, and Ruth Kelly, who lost the education job to Alan Johnson and takes over Mr Prescott's responsibilities for communities and local government.
While Blairites said the reshuffle showed the Prime Minister could remain in Downing Street until 2008, others were sceptical. One minister said: " It's Blair's last throw of the dice."
A Brownite MP said: "Nobody is going to be kidded by this reshuffle. It's just to take attention off Blair."
Mr Blair's critics have drafted a letter calling for a "firm and fixed timetable" for his departure. The final wording of the letter has still to be agreed, according to one insider. "There is an argument going on, ranging from those who want Tony Blair to resign by next Sunday to those calling for an orderly transfer."
Andrew Smith, a Brownite former cabinet minister, said: "I believe we need to see the timetable for that change sooner rather than later. Better now than in three months' time."
Martin Salter, a member of the committee that represents backbench Labour MPs, issued a personal call for a "clear timetable" to end the "destabilising" effect of speculation about when Mr Blair will hand over power.
Nick Raynsford, the former local government minister, said: "The problem with reshuffling the Cabinet is that no one believes it's going to last. This is a temporary staging post before Gordon takes over."
Graham Stringer, another former minister, said: "We need a change in the captain of the ship rather than the crew."
How the parties performed
Conservatives 40 per cent (+299 seats)
Liberal Democrats 27 per cent (+3 seats)
Labour 26 per cent (-319 seats)Reuse content