Winners and losers on day of ministerial merry-go-round

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Indy Politics

Charles Clarke, SACKED AS HOME SECRETARY

In an aside to MPs six months ago, Charles Clarke made clear his disquiet over the number of foreigners in British jails.

With the Home Secretary facing a momentous political battle over anti-terror legislation, his comments were barely noticed at the time. But a chain of events behind the scenes was under way in the Home Office that would ultimately lead to Mr Clarke's downfall.

Ten days ago he was forced to announce that 1,023 foreign prisoners - including murderers, rapists and paedophiles - had been released without deportation hearings. Hours later, he admitted that 288 of them had been let out since he became aware of the problem. When he had made his comments in October about foreign prisoners, the releases had reached a peak.

The disclosures provided graphic evidence of the endemic problems in the Home Office which a succession of big-hitting politicians failed to tackle.

Although Mr Clarke accepted responsibility for the prisoner release crisis, he was powerless to prevent a procession of damaging developments as Labour prepared to fight a tricky set of local elections.

The news emerged on Thursday night that a terrorist suspect had not been deported despite serving a prison sentence for robbery. Although Tony Blair appears to have already decided to dismiss his pugnacious Home Secretary, it merely underlined why the Prime Minister felt a new face was needed at the department.

Mr Clarke, whose reputation as a bruiser was offset by his fluency in several foreign languages and his fascination with statistics, inherited the Home Office 16 months ago at a time of crisis.

The day after he arrived, law lords ruled that David Blunkett's use of detention without trial for terror suspects was unlawful. He devised a regime of control orders allowing suspects to live at home under tight restrictions, which drew the wrath of civil rights campaigners and many lawyers.

He was also at the centre of a hail of criticism over a series of murders and rapes committed by offenders on probation - including the killings of 16-year-old Mary-Ann Leneghan in Reading and the financier John Monckton at his home in Chelsea.

Mr Clarke sparked fury among police officers with his plans to merge local services into regional superforces. But he successfully steered the Bill introducing identity cards through Parliament despite opposition in the House of Lords and howls of outrage in the liberal press.

After the scale of the threat from terrorism became clear on 7 July last year, Mr Clarke unveiled a raft of tough new anti-terror measures, including 90-day detention, a plan which led to the Government's first Commons defeat. Signs were growing by then of a rift with Downing Street. By yesterday it had become unbridgeable.

Intellectually confident and politically fearless, Mr Clarke was brought into the Home Office as someone capable of driving through contentious legislation in the teeth of opposition.

A former chief of staff to Neil Kinnock, Mr Clarke was elected to Parliament in 1997 at the age of 46. He lost no time making his way up the ministerial ladder, serving in the Department of Education (1998-99) and Home Office (1999-2001) before being appointed Labour Party chairman after the 2001 general election.

He was elevated to Education Secretary after Estelle Morris's surprise resignation in 2002, and was transferred to the Home Office after Mr Blunkett resigned.

While he was Education Secretary, Mr Clarke got the Bill introducing university tuition fees on to the statute books despite a massive Labour revolt, with the Government's majority slashed to five at one point. Alan Johnson, his deputy at the time, said they got measure through by means of a "charm offensive" - "I was charming and he was offensive."

Mr Clarke's departure from the Home Office will come as a blow to many of those he worked with. Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the probation union Napo, said: "It is a disappointing loss. Unlike many of his predecessors, Charles Clarke was willing to listen and consult with trade unions."

Rick Nayor, president of the Police Superintendents' Association, said: "He has been the driving force behind police reform and restructuring forces in England and Wales." Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), said: "Charles Clarke has been a significant and supportive ally of the police service, and, although there were inevitably times when we disagreed with detail, Acpo has certainly been a strong advocate of the direction in which he was taking the service."

However, the one figure whose opinion was decisive took a more critical view. In a statement, the Prime Minister said: "I felt that it was very difficult, given the level of genuine public concern, for Charles to continue in this post. I was keen not to lose Charles' talents from government and offered him a number of other cabinet posts. But I understand his decision to leave the Government and know he will continue to be a major figure in our party."

Clarke's statement

"It is with deep regret that I'm today leaving the office of Home Secretary in which it has been my great honour to serve for the past 16 months.

"In this role, as in previous jobs in Government, it has been my ambition to bring about the change necessary to transform the security of this country in relation to counter-terrorism and policing, prisons and probation, and immigration and asylum.

"As I sought to make the necessary changes to very deep-seated and long-standing problems, I have uncovered areas where still more and faster change is needed.

"One such issue is how to deal with foreign national prisoners for which I have taken overall responsibility and on which I have staked my reputation.

"The Prime Minister, as is his right and responsibility, has made the judgment that my continued occupation of the post of Home Secretary is likely to stand in the way of the continued reforms which remain necessary.

"And though I do not agree with that judgment, I entirely accept his right to make it.

"However, I do not think it would be appropriate to remain in Government in these circumstances and so I shall return to the backbenches where I will be a strong and active supporter of this Government and the leadership of Tony Blair for his full Parliamentary term."

John Prescott, STRIPPED OF POWER

John Prescott has lost the Whitehall department created for him by Tony Blair but kept the trappings of power despite his damaging affair with his diary secretary, Tracey Temple.

Mr Prescott, 67, retains his title as Deputy Prime Minister, and will also keep a six-figure cabinet salary, his official Jaguar, his apartment at Admiralty House and his grace and favour country house, Dorneywood.

He has pulled out of a BBC TV interview tomorrow in the face of more revelations about his affair by Ms Temple in a Sunday newspaper. He was planning to admit he was entirely to blame for his affair with his secretary but will be spending the weekend with his wife Pauline at the family home in Hull. "He would rather be at home with Pauline than in London," said a friend. "He is going to shut the door for a few days and stay with Pauline."

Mrs Prescott posed for pictures with her husband in a show of support on Thursday when they voted at their local polling station in Hull.

Even before the sex scandal hit the news stands, Mr Prescott had asked Mr Blair to be taken out of the front line and to be allowed to continue as Deputy Prime Minister without portfolio. "He's got what he wanted. He's been talking about wanting to get out of the front line for months with Blair," said one ally.

Another friend said: "He's been fed up with his department, and taking the blame for everything from the rise in the council tax to Gypsies."

Kate Hoey, the pro-hunting Labour MP, questioned why taxpayers should pay for Mr Prescott to stay in the Cabinet after losing his Whitehall job. Critics are certain to ask: what is Mr Prescott in the Government for?

Allies said he will be seen as the "minister for the handover", brokering a smooth transition of power between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown.

He was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1994. When Labour came to power in 1997, he wanted to be given a freewheeling role as delivery-chaser and behind-the-scenes fixer. Mr Blair instead gave him the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions, to give him the experience of a running a Whitehall department, for which he later thanked Mr Blair.

However, Mr Blair bowed to Mr Prescott's wishes in 2001, and appointed him to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Its main role was to oversee local government, but in 2005 David Miliband was brought in to carry out the running of the department, leaving Mr Prescott free to chair a plethora of cabinet committees.

He will continue in that role, chairing up to 14 cabinet committees when the Prime Minister is absent.

He also remains deputy leader of the Labour Party but is now more likely to step down from the post when Mr Blair finally goes.

Jack Straw, DEMOTED

The decision to openly challenge the attempts by Downing Street to keep in step with the hawkish Bush administration over Iran was to prove costly for Jack Straw yesterday.

Mr Straw, 59, was moved from the Foreign Office to become Leader of the House. He had discussed the post over a year ago with Tony Blair, but it still came as a surprise when he was told he would be moved.

He had taken an active role in leading UN Security Council action on Iran and had been scheduled to fly to New York for a dinner with the foreign ministers of the council's permanent members. Now it will be Margaret Beckett who will attend those talks, at a time when the Security Council is bitterly divided over tactics to convince Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Foreign Office sources were at a loss to explain why he had been chosen for what smacks of punishment by being named Leader of the House. But a senior European observer said he was being "punished for disloyalty". He said that Mr Straw was paying the price for "stabbing Blair in the back" in 2004, by siding with Gordon Brown at a time when the Iraq conflict was deepening. There were also tensions between Mr Straw and Mr Blair over the EU budget at the end of last year, with Mr Straw accused of siding with Mr Brown.

On Iran, the Foreign Secretary had repeatedly described military action against Tehran as "inconceivable" and US contingency plans for a tactical nuclear strike as "nuts", while Mr Blair, like Mr Bush, had refused to rule out any option.

Mr Straw's aides point out that he was the architect of Europe's Iran policy (with the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer) which offered Tehran incentives to co-operate in curbing its nuclear programme. But his critics say he lacked vision.

Margaret Beckett, PROMOTED

Margaret Beckett surprised those who expected her to be retired by being promoted to become the first female Foreign Secretary.

Mrs Beckett, 63, who famously takes her holidays in a caravan with her husband, Leo, has been one of the great survivors of the Blair Government.

She won a reputation as a feisty campaigner for British interests as Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and is expected to be a tough negotiator on the international stage over difficult issues such as Iran.

On Thursday, she was praised by the Prime Minister after delivering a tough assessment of the dangers facing the world through climate change. Mr Blair said it was the best presentation the Cabinet had seen but she was more qualified than most to understand the scientific challenges presented by climate change.

Before entering Parliament, she completed an engineering apprenticeship, and went on to work as a metallurgist at Manchester University. She took over Defra after the outbreak of mad cow disease and helped to turn around the department, lifting low morale among her staff as she steered it towards a more modern role as the champion of the consumer rather than the producers, the farmers.

She has recently been criticised by farmers for presiding over a chaotic system of agricultural payments. She was also attacked at Defra for frequently relying on jets of the Queen's Flight to get to European meetings rather than the train, a habit which earned her the nickname "minister for air miles".

However, she is highly regarded by Downing Street for possessing a "safe pair of hands" and was a natural choice to defend the Government in times of crisis on the BBC Today programme, when others preferred to duck the task.

Alan Johnson, PROMOTED

Alan Johnson's appointment as Education Secretary - succeeding Ruth Kelly - was welcomed by many in academia. They credit him with helping to steer the controversial top-up fees legislation through the Commons in his previous post as minister for Higher Education.

University vice-chancellors saw him as a man they could do business with, and many inside the Department for Education and Skills believe he, rather than his former departmental boss Charles Clarke, was responsible for getting potential rebel MPs to change their minds, through cosy chats in the tea-rooms. Tony Blair will want the former union leader to use his negotiating skills again to win rebels over to his new flagship education reforms, to set up independently run "trust" schools.

Mr Johnson was orphaned at 12 and was almost sent to a Barnardo's home. He and his 15-year-old sister argued they should stay together and they were given a council flat in Battersea.

Aged 55, he is married with one son.

John Reid, PROMOTED AGAIN

John Reid's promotion to Home Secretary - perhaps the hardest job in the Cabinet - was not a surprise, but a lot of grumbling could be heard about it, from inside and outside the Labour Party.

He is the first Scot to be appointed Home Secretary since devolution, and apart from the troublesome issue of immigration, most of his responsibilities do not extend north of the border. It is also the ninth job he has held in nine years.

From Tony Blair's point of view, the new Home Secretary's assets are that he is tough and combative. With him in charge, voters are unlikely to think Labour is going soft on criminals, and they have a home secretary who can take on tough interviewers. He is also a committed Blairite who may yet decide that it is worth challenging Gordon Brown for the top job.

Mr Reid's experience of high-level politics goes back to when he was appointed adviser to Neil Kinnock in 1983. As an MP from 1987, he made relatively slow progress but has outlasted his contemporaries who rose faster, such as David Blunkett.

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