Leading article: The ultimate responsibility

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The Independent Online

Last week, this newspaper urged the resignation of Charles Clarke as Home Secretary and the retention of Patricia Hewitt as Secretary of State for Health, and expressed its indifference to the details of the private life of the Deputy Prime Minister. It should be no surprise, therefore, that we should welcome much about the changes to the Cabinet that were announced on Friday.

In particular, it was right and important that Mr Clarke should accept responsibility for his failure to ensure, for more than six months after he knew of the problem, that all foreign prisoners should face deportation hearings. As Shami Chakrabarti warns on the opposite page, there is a danger of demonising foreigners in the way this issue has been reported. But it is absolutely right that foreigners who commit imprisonable offences should be at least considered for deportation, and it was a serious failing of the Home Office that this was not done in so many cases. This newspaper argued last week that, when failings are as serious as this, the device of simply saying that one accepts responsibility and is dealing with the problem is not enough. At some point, ministers must pay with their jobs.

On the other hand, we approve of the fact that Ms Hewitt was among only eight cabinet ministers whose jobs were unchanged. And it was at least half a step in the right direction that John Prescott was stripped of his departmental responsibilities, although that does leave awkward questions about why he should be so amply rewarded for carrying out such limited duties.

We also approve of the appointment of Alan Johnson, a capable and persuasive minister, as Secretary of State for Education. And while David Miliband deserves his own department, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor must allow him to translate their recent green rhetoric into action at Environment.

The changes have been reported as dramatic, although Tony Blair still has some way to go before he can match Sir Alan Sugar - whose television entertainment approaches its finale this week - for the brutal despatch of poor performers. The Prime Minister is rather more constrained than he would like us to believe. He has done his utmost to assert his power to hire and fire while not adding unnecessarily to the hotbeds of the dispossessed and disaffected on Labour's back benches.

The most important feature of this reshuffle, however, is that it contradicted the new constitutional principle, temporarily set out by Mr Blair and Mr Clarke, that if ministers fail in their jobs they have a duty to stay where they are and sort it out. What a relief.

Yet the Prime Minister should not bask too long in the warm glow of congratulations for asserting the principle of meaningful accountability. His attempt to use the reshuffle to distract attention from last week's local elections has been only partly successful. It is true that the results were no worse for Labour than those of two years ago. But they are part of a long process of perhaps inevitable disillusionment that can have only one ending.

As Mr Blair reflects on the message from the electorate, which is that he is increasingly seen as inflexible, out of touch and untrustworthy, he needs to ask himself whether he can ever convince people that he is listening to their concerns. Last week's reshuffle was a start, and its confirmation that the principle of ministerial accountability continues to apply to members of his Government offers some reassurance. But the Prime Minister will not long be able to put off the day when he is has to apply that principle of accountability to himself.