After the British Labour party’s worst local election result since 1982, Tony Blair swiftly moved to reshuffle his cabinet which led to some a high profile ministers losing their posts. While it was widely anticipated that Charles Clarke the Home Secretary would lose his job over his failure to deport immigrant criminals, and John Prescott the Deputy Prime Minister to be stripped of his ministry, few expected Jack Straw to be removed from the position of Britain’s Foreign Secretary.
It was understandable for Charles Clarke, John Prescott and Patricia Hewitt (the Minister for health) to be in the firing line for incompetence, adultery and how to fund the NHS, but Jack Straw’s conduct was never under any real public scrutiny. So why was he removed?
The media has given three reasons for Straw’s dismissal: a). forging closer links with Gordon Brown b). admitting mistakes over Iraq c). undermining Blair’s authority over Iran. The latter appears to be the real reason for Straw’s demotion to the leader of the commons.
While it maybe true that Straw was repositioning himself to forge closer links with Gordon Brown (Blair’s successor), it unlikely that this was the primary reason for removing Straw. The inclusion of Gordon Brown’s supporters in the new cabinet discredits this view. Brown’s two former advisers, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, both landed junior ministerial jobs, while Des Browne and Europe minister Douglas Alexander were promoted within the cabinet.
Likewise Straw’s disquiet over Iraq could not have featured prominently in Blair’s decision to get rid of him. After all, Straw became the lead architect of the Iraq war after inheriting the mantle of defending Britain’s policy on Iraq from Robin Cook. Cook resigned as Foreign Secretary and became a staunch critic of the government’s handling of Iraq. On the issue of Iraq, Straw remained loyal and defended Blair’s Iraq policy tooth and nail, he only spoke out when the Anglo-American debacle in Iraq became plainly manifest for the whole world to see. Even then his remarks or admission of mistakes caused Blair little political embarrassment.
If there ever was a reason for his dismissal from the office of Foreign Secretary then it had to be Iran. The spat between the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister over Iran started way back in 2003. Jack Straw much to the annoyance of Downing Street and Washington has always insisted that military action against Iran was inconceivable On April 9 2006 Straw described the idea that the White House wanted a nuclear strike as “completely nuts”. He insisted that Britain would not support pre-emptive military action, adding: “I’m as certain as I can be sitting here that neither would the United States.” Speaking to the BBC, Mr Straw said: “There is no smoking gun, there is no casus belli. We can’t be certain about Iran’s intentions and that is, therefore, not a basis on which anybody would gain authority to go for military action.” The division between Mr Straw on the one hand and Mr Bush and Mr Blair on the other was further exposed in Prime Minister’s Questions on 19 April 2006. Sir Menzies Campbell asked Mr Blair whether he agreed with his Foreign Secretary that military action against Iran would be “inconceivable” and that the use of nuclear weapons would be “nuts”. An uncomfortable-looking Tony Blair said that while “nobody is talking about a military invasion" now was “not the time to send a message of weakness. The President of the US is not going to take any option off the table. That is perfectly sensible for all the reasons the President has himself given many, many times.” Using clever language Blair still held out the possibility that his government would support the military option but not a full-scale invasion.
The official US stance on Straw’s demotion was somewhat muted. "That is an internal political matter for the United Kingdom," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said at a briefing. However, the departure of the Foreign Secretary was warmly by former officials of the Bush administration. David Frum, Bush’s former speech writer who coined the phrase “axis of evil”, said: “It’s a reassertion of Blair’s personal leadership of foreign affairs. He has removed the foreign minister who says military action against Iran is inconceivable and replaced him with somebody who hasn’t said anything.”
What is more interesting is that Downing Street was plotting Straw’s demise for quite sometime. The Independent Newspaper quoted a retired senior US intelligence officer as having told his British counterpart recently that the White House lost confidence in the Foreign Secretary at least six months ago. It was an analysis; we now know and shared with Mr. Blair. The Prime Minister’s aides say Mr. Straw has a tendency to brief friendly journalists with the details of a contentious meeting, sometimes within hours. It is now evident that the Blair’s inaction to chastise the beleaguered Charles Clarke and the adulterous John Prescott in the run up to May 5th local election were deliberate. Blair’s main target was Jack Straw, and the abysmal showing of the Labour Party in the local election provided the perfect opportunity.
Straw’s replacement is Margaret Beckett an inexperienced hand at foreign affairs. Her occupation of the third most coveted position in British politics has more to do with being a loyal servant of Blair then her competence over foreign matters. Her biggest challenge will come directly from the bureaucracy of the foreign office- some of whom deeply resent the Prime Minister’s neoconservative vision of the world.
With Blair effectively running the foreign office, he and his supporters in BP and Shell will now have more freedom to plan their next move against Iran and the wider Muslim world.