LONDON, May 5: British Prime Minister Tony Blair began reshuffling his cabinet today after his ruling Labour Party recorded one of its worst defeats in a local election since coming to power in 1997.
''Yes, it's started but further details will come out in due course,'' a spokeswoman in the prime minister's office said.
After accusations of government incompetence and sleaze over the past few weeks, the poor results could spark fresh calls for Blair himself to step down sooner rather than later.
Yesterday's vote was held in 176 of the 388 local authorities in England, with a total 4,360 council seats up for grabs.
Results posted on a BBC Web Site showed Labour had lost 255 of the 1,768 seats it was defending while a resurgent opposition Conservative party under new leader David Cameron gained 250.
''This is a warning shot for us as a government,'' said Finance Minister Gordon Brown. ''The renewal of the Labour Party must start now.'' Brown, who has been finance minister ever since Labour returned to power in 1997, has long coveted Blair's job. He is widely expected to take over before the next general election, due by mid-2010 at the latest.
Relations between the two have been tense, although they campaigned together for the local elections and Brown today said that Blair and Labour wanted an orderly transition.
Critics have attacked the prime minister in the past two weeks over a spate of scandals including the failure to consider deporting foreign prisoners, hospital staff cuts and his married deputy's admission that he had an affair.
''We have got to show in the next few days, not just the next few weeks, that we have sorted these problems out,'' said Brown. ''I will be talking to Tony Blair about these issues over the weekend.'' ON THE CUSP ''The Conservatives have had their best result since 1992 and it shows they are on the way back,'' said Mori pollster Ben Page.
''But it doesn't mean that Labour are going to lose the next election. It just shows it will be close. This is far from meltdown,'' he told Reuters.
Voters in Britain traditionally use local elections to punish the government of the day.
Analysts had said the loss of many more than 200 seats would be seen as a bad result for Blair.
''Blair will be in trouble if a significant number of Labour MPs are sufficiently rattled by these results to say they might lose their own seats unless Blair goes,'' YouGov pollster Peter Kellner said.
''These results are not quite bad enough for it to be automatic for Labour MPs to step in. But on the other hand, it's all on the cusp,'' he told Reuters.
Blair, who won his third straight election in 2005, has said he will quit before the next general election, but has not set a date.
Very poor results could increase calls from within Labour for Blair to name date for a handover to Brown.
The poll was also a crucial test for the Conservatives under new leader Cameron who is trying to transform his party into a modern, caring political force and drag it out of the wilderness after three straight election defeats.
''This shows the Conservative Party is broadening its appeal, that it's attracting new voters, and I think we see a Labour Party that is in some sort of serious meltdown,'' Cameron told GMTV television. ''I'm a happy man this morning.'' The Conservatives did well in the capital London, taking control of key boroughs including Croydon but failed to gain any seats in the northern cities of Liverpool and Manchester, seen as a crucial step if they are to succeed in national elections.
Labour also suffered losses to the far-right British National Party, which made gains most notably in the London suburb of Barking and Dagenham after campaigning on a fiercely anti-immigrant agenda.