Leading article: The desperate actions of a wounded Prime Minister

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The Independent Online

Here are just a few of the headlines. Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, sacked in the wake of the scandal over foreign prisoners released without being considered for deportation. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, deprived of his department, but not his rank, following sordid revelations about an affair. Iraq war stalwarts Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon both demoted. Margaret Beckett becomes Britain's first female Foreign Secretary. Ruth Kelly, a failure at education, takes on a reorganised Department for Constitutional Affairs.

Consider the headlines that might have been without this sweeping demonstration of prime ministerial authority. Labour slides to 10-year low in the polls. Pressure grows on Blair to announce date for Brown to take over. Cameron's Conservatives triumphant as new image seduces Middle England. Extreme right secures election of record number of councillors as pockets of the old working class abandon Labour. No wonder Mr Blair has tried to stamp his authority on the Government anew.

Conservative cheer

Yet the overall significance of the election results may be less than the sum of their many parts - and the same applies to the reshuffle.

The election results were bad for Labour, and there is no getting around this. But they were not as bad as Labour doom-watchers were cannily putting it about in the days before. The Prime Minister can be grateful not just that Labour's losses remained well below 300, but that fewer councils than forecast were lost.

The Conservatives could cheer their results as heralding the end of their long, post-Thatcher, decline. The party's showing in London was especially impressive, with Labour's loss of overall control in Camden a victory of immense symbolic value. The Hampstead liberals have hit back. And even if the results here and elsewhere owe much to gentrification, they still bode well for the Tories, suggesting that those voters seduced by New Labour in 1997 can be wooed back by David Cameron's modern, green-tinged brand of Conservatism.

'Ruthless' reshuffle

A the same time, the Tories' failure to penetrate the northern conurbations - they made no inroads even in a city as "yuppified" as Manchester - was surely a disappointment. It shows how much the Tories must do to win a general election. It may also be the first warning flag about the limits of the new leader's appeal.

The Conservatives' otherwise beneficial move to the centre may also have lost them potential support in some urban areas and left the field to the BNP. Margaret Hodge's incautious predictions of BNP gains has played a role too in making this despicable option more acceptable to some. The only consolation here is that the extreme right is probably better inside the political process than outside it, and past BNP victories have tended to inoculate voters against their pernicious charm next time around.

The performance of the Liberal Democrats must be accounted a dismal disappointment. Local elections have traditionally been the third party's forte. Their inability to make more headway in the south illustrates the danger that Mr Cameron's Conservative Party could inflict on the Liberal Democrats in a general election. This was the first test of Sir Menzies Campbell's leadership and, while new instability is the last thing the party needs, it will not be surprising if some start to question the quality of his leadership. The discomfiture of Labour in the run-up to the elections gave Liberal Democrats an opportunity which Sir Menzies proved unable to seize.

Tony Blair, for his part, made clear with his Cabinet reshuffle that questions about his leadership were not something he was prepared to entertain. Yet the Prime Minister's very effort to reassert his power smacked of desperation. Widely described as "ruthless" for its breadth, this reshuffle was notable for sideways moves and the advance of Blair loyalists. It was neither a clearing of the decks, nor an exercise in rejuvenation; ultimately, it was an attempt to put a gloss on the rather tarnished New Labour brand, with reliable salesman of the Blairite message moved into the frontline.

Charles Clarke's dismissal was the most eye-catching move. But Mr Clarke might reasonably ask why, if Mr Blair wanted his scalp, he had not claimed it when the prisoner releases first became public. John Reid's successful tenure at Defence made him Mr Clarke's obvious replacement. Mr Prescott must count himself fortunate: perhaps he is of too much use to Mr Blair - as intermediary with Gordon Brown, or as interpreter of the party's grass roots - to be jettisoned. He retains all the perks of his job, without the burden of running a department. Those duties pass to Ms Kelly, whose stay at Education exposed her political immaturity.

On the sidelines

Many of the other moves appear to have been in planning for a while. Mrs Beckett's move places an accomplished communicator in a job occupied by the tongue-tied Jack Straw. Mr Hoon's demotion to the Europe portfolio gives a former MEP and confirmed Europhile responsibility for handling relations with Brussels, but could be a mixed blessing. David Miliband's move to Environment means a bright young thing will joust on green issues with Mr Cameron.

As telling as those who are moved or removed are those who stay: Tessa Jowell, Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt all keep their jobs. And, of course, the Chancellor. Gordon Brown looks strangely marooned by this reshuffle. He might have risked the hope that Labour losses on Thursday would shorten his wait for the top job. Instead, he had to watch from the sidelines as Tony Blair worked his political wizardry one more time. Just now, though, the sidelines are not necessarily the worst place to be.

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