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Blair shaping new government

Blair has made wide-ranging changes to his cabinet  

LONDON, England -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair is spending the weekend making further changes to his new government following his landslide poll victory.

Blair reaffirmed his sweeping election victory by unveiling a comprehensive Cabinet shuffle just after 9 p.m. (2000 GMT) on Friday.

The changes came as the opposition Conservative Party began its search for a new leader after William Hague's resignation.

The main surprise of Blair's cabinet reshuffle was the replacement of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook -- the most Europhile member of Blair's team -- with former Home Minister Jack Straw.

Cook remains in the Cabinet as leader of the House of Commons. The leader of the Commons organizes parliamentary business and acts as a party spokesman when the prime minister and deputy prime minister are away.

Blair's official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, downplaying suggestions Cook was being demoted, said: "Robin is a formidable parliamentarian, a House of Commons man. The Prime Minister thinks that there is an opportunity to use his considerable talents in another way.

"Parliament matters and it is important that there is a political heavyweight in the role."

Welcoming his new role, Cook said: "I have always been first and foremost a parliamentarian and have missed the House of Commons over the last four years.

"Inevitably, as Foreign Secretary I have spent little time in the House. I am glad that I will be back at the centre of Commons debate once more."

Whatever Blair's real motivation in replacing Cook with Straw at the foreign office, British newspapers saw it as a step away from the euro.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper's front page read: "His move will be seen as an indication that Mr Blair does not plan any rushed move into the euro or to bounce the public into holding a referendum on abolishing the pound."

Hague was widely seen in the British press as having blundered in making the euro the central theme of his election campaign.

But ironically, it is now set to become top of the political agenda for Blair's first months in power.

Straw's former post of Home Secretary (interior minister) will be filled by David Blunkett from education.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott loses his huge environment, transport and the regions department and moves to his own office in the Cabinet Office.

Labour veteran Margaret Beckett heads up a new environment and rural affairs department while former Trade Secretary Stephen Byers takes the rump of Prescott's empire -- transport, local government and the regions.

Earlier on Friday, Blair declared his landslide general election victory a "mandate for reform" in Britain and also "an instruction to deliver".

Labour will have a majority of 167 in the House of Commons, the UK's main legislative body.

Elsewhere, the Northern Ireland peace process has come under fresh pressure from Protestant hardliners following five wins for the Democratic Unionist Party, led by Rev. Ian Paisley, who has renewed demands for IRA disarmament.

Hague resigned immediately after his party's resounding defeat  

The DUP, whose five MPs in the new Westminster parliament will be the highest in the party's history, immediately warned Prime Minister Tony Blair the Good Friday Agreement must go.

With all of Parliament's 659 seats declared in the general election, Labour had 413 seats, the Conservatives 164 seats, and the Liberal Democrats, the third-largest party, 47 seats.

But the election is believed to have produced the lowest voter turnout since 1918.

Blair also paid tribute to the "extraordinary stoicism and resilience" of the opposition Conservative Party leader, William Hague.

Hague resigned on Friday after his party's resounding defeat at the polls - the first Tory leader since the 1920s who has not become Prime Minister.

The bookmakers' favourite for the Conservative leadership is shadow finance minister Michael Portillo.

Other top contenders are Tory interior spokeswoman Ann Widdecombe, defence spokesman Iain Duncan Smith, MP David Davis and pro-euro former finance minister Kenneth Clarke.

• The Labour Party
• 10 Downing Street
• The Conservative Party
• The Liberal Democrat Party
• UK Government

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