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Blair names less showy foreign and defence chiefs

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, May 5 (Reuters) After years when his premiership was defined by being US President George W. Bush's closest ally over Iraq, Tony Blair has appointed what many political analysts see as less showy Foreign and Defence Ministers.

Stung by a heavy defeat in local authority elections, the British prime minister switched Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Defence Secretary John Reid to other posts today in his biggest shake-up of government since he came to power in 1997.

Their replacements, former Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett and number two Treasury minister Des Browne, have had no previous direct role over Iraq and Afghanistan where Blair deployed British forces in US-led invasions.

Blair, long branded by critics as Bush's ''poodle'', may be hoping the new ministers' lower public profiles can draw some of the political sting out of wars that have damaged his standing with his Labour Party's core left-wing supporters.

But with violence raging in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and Britain on Washington's side in a standoff over Iran's nuclear programme, the new faces may yet be called upon to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States.

The removal of Straw as Foreign Secretary came as a surprise within a foreign policy establishment where he was widely seen as an able aide to Blair during difficult diplomacy over Iraq.

Some speculated he may have upset Blair by ruling out military strikes against Iran in terms that were too strong. But others say rumoured policy differences were overstated.

RICE VISIT Straw, who had adopted a more outspoken and public role of late, attracted Muslim protesters when he invited US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to his northern English home town of Blackburn in March.

''Jack Straw's love-in with Condi up in Blackburn was the last straw so to speak,'' said Tim Ripley, who writes about defence and foreign affairs for Jane's Defence Weekly.

''He may have thought it was a great idea, but how did it play to the folks back home? If you want people to stop talking about (Iraq), you don't want to invite Condi to 24-hour wall-to-wall coverage of her meeting angry Muslim protesters.'' Beckett, a left-wing stalwart who holidays in a caravan, is hardly a US ''poodle''. She was Britain's negotiator on the Kyoto global warming treaty -- one of the few times that London has been publicly at odds with Washington.

At the Defence Ministry, the change could not have come at a more symbolic time: the day after a British general took over command of NATO peacekeepers in Afghanistan.

Reid, a cabinet heavyweight, was appointed Defence Secretary just a year ago and had the task of selling a major new troop commitment in Afghanistan to the British people, already war-weary from Iraq.

Browne replaces Reid after holding a number of junior government posts but has no foreign or defence policy record.

Colonel Christopher Langton of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said Browne's appointment may be received poorly in the ranks of the ministry and military.

''To put in somebody who frankly is not known and has no track record as a minister into an important ministry at an important time is a very politicised move indeed,'' said Langton.

As a former Treasury minister, Browne may turn a cold eye to the military's demands for hi-tech equipment, said Paul Rogers, professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford.

The next year will see Britain commit itself to two giant new aircraft carriers and decide on a new nuclear missile fleet to replace its Trident submarines.

''That's the interesting part of the story: to put a Treasury man in charge of defence,'' said Rogers.

Browne is not expected to be launching any new major British military operations soon.

''The Afghan thing has been launched, so that's done and dusted, and Iraq is just sort of ticking over. You don't have to take any decisions. Just go with the flow,'' said Ripley.

Reuters VJ VP0055

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