UK cabinet shuffle may benefit J'lem

Without Straw, the US-UK approach to the Middle East likely to be more unified.

jack straw 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
jack straw 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Israel may have come out the winner following Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet shuffle on May 5. The demotion of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and appointment of Blair loyalist Margaret Beckett to his post are likely to result in a more unified Anglo-American approach to Iran, Hamas and the Middle East. With no experience in Middle East affairs and a reputation as a capable manager and Blair loyalist, Beckett is expected to back her political master and to favor the American approach to conflict resolution in the Middle East over the initiatives favored by the EU, with a tougher stance towards Hamas and terrorism. Labor's third-place showing in the May 4 local council elections across Britain has been used by Prime Minister Blair to clean house, consolidating his hold on the party by removing supporters of political rival Gordon Brown, Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, from the cabinet. Called a political "bloodbath" by London's Evening Standard, Blair sacked Home Secretary Charles Clarke and demoted four senior ministers, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Party Chairman Ian McCartney and leader of the House of Commons Geoffrey Hoon. At a press conference held Friday, the prime minister's official spokesman explained that Straw was delighted to take the reduced role of Leader of the House of Commons with responsibility for House of Lords reform, party funding and the Cabinet's constitutional affairs committee. The former foreign secretary was the "quintessential House of Commons man," Blair's spokesman said, and was pleased to accept the new appointment. Straw's replacement, Beckett, the spokesman explained, was a seasoned government minister with experience in foreign negotiations arising from her tenure as head of the Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. A supporter of Blair over the war in Iraq, Straw had distanced himself from the prime minister in recent months over Iran and Hamas. Last month Straw ruled out any military action against Iran, a stance quickly repudiated by Blair. On April 24, Blair responded to a question about the apparent divide in British policy, stating that while "nobody is talking about military invasion, people do, however, want to send a very strong signal to Iran. It is not very sensible at this moment in time to send a signal of weakness," refusing to rule out the military option, saying Britain should instead "send a signal of strength." On April 20, during a visit to Saudi Arabia, Straw called for normalization of relations with Hamas, saying recognition of Israel by Hamas would not necessarily require a formal declaration by the new Palestinian government. Straw's remarks were quickly downplayed by the British government stating that there had been no change in policy implied by his statements. Beckett's appointment to the Foreign Office represents a "safe pair of hands," for Blair, The Guardian noted. The first woman appointed foreign secretary, Beckett comes to the post after 25 years in Parliament. Over the course of her political career, Beckett has moved from Labor's hard left to its center and has been a loyal supporter of the prime minister for 12 years. First elected to Parliament in 1974, Beckett was elected Deputy Leader of the Labor Party in 1992 and served as acting leader of the opposition for three months in 1994 following the sudden death of party leader John Smith. Beckett placed third in the leadership election and subsequently served in Blair's shadow cabinet. Following Labor's 1997 victory, she was appointed Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and became leader of the House of Commons in 1998. Following the 2001 General Election she accepted the environment portfolio and led Britain's international climate change negations. While expressing reservations about the prospect of war in 2002, she has consistently voted in support of Blair's foreign policies and endorsed the war in Iraq. Her views and policy leanings on Israel and the Middle East are not clear. She has never spoken in Parliament on Middle East policy and has always voted in support of the government line. Beckett is expected to strictly follow Blair's Middle East foreign policy strategy, moving away from an EU-centered approach to closer partnership with the US. Beckett's experience with climate change negotiations and support for the Kyoto Treaty protocols will not mean Britain and the US will move in lockstep however, with the potential for conflict arising over this contentious issue between the views of Bush and Blair.