Tony Blair's Shake-Up

The resignation of Britain's Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, on May 28 has triggered a shuffle in Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet. Byers, who has been under fire for recent railway disasters and for rocky relations with Parliament, is being replaced by Work & Pensions Secretary Alistair Darling. Darling will now have to oversee a major upgrade of Britain's outdated rail network. Andrew Smith, the No. 2 official at the Treasury, is replacing Darling.

What's interesting about these changes is that Blair loyalists are losing ground. Byers was a key Blairite. Others, such as Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon and Health Secretary Alan Milburn, remain. But associates of the powerful and ambitious Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, such as Darling and Smith, are getting top jobs. And independent figures who cut their teeth under pragmatic former leader Neil Kinnock--such as Home Secretary David Blunkett and Trade & Industry Secretary Patricia Hewit--are emerging as powers.

Blair is still in a strong position, because Labour continues to run eight percentage points ahead of the Conservatives in the polls. But should he stumble, Blair might find the party turning against him. "If there was a period of sustained political weakness, then I think it is inevitable that some of today's camp followers would switch allegiance," says Peter Kellner, chairman of YouGov, a British Internet polling service. In that case, the likely beneficiary would be Blair's longtime rival, Brown.

By Stanley Reed in London

Edited by Rose Brady

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