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UK has first woman foreign secretary


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Margaret Beckett
Tony Blair
Great Britain

LONDON, England -- Margaret Beckett, who once briefly led the Labour Party -- the first woman to do so -- has become Britain's first woman foreign secretary following a major Cabinet reshuffle.

The far-reaching ministerial changes, which also saw the appointment of Geoff Hoon as secretary of state for Europe, were announced Friday after Labour suffered heavy losses in local council elections in England.

Beckett replaces Jack Straw, whose demotion to leader of the Commons, is a surprise.

Rumors of tension have often been reported between Straw and Prime Minister Tony Blair -- some reports said the outgoing foreign secretary had privately expressed doubts about the Iraq war, and publicly took a different position on Iran than Blair did.

Straw had described a military strike against Tehran as "inconceivable" and the reported U.S. contingency plans for a tactical nuclear strike as "completely nuts."

Beckett is a gritty left-winger who eased herself into the center ground under Tony Blair's leadership.

The 63-year-old is one of the great survivors of the Blair era. After Labour won the 1997 election, she became trade and industry secretary and then, as leader of the Commons, her humor and toughness earned her respect in all parts of the House.

In 2001, following the foot-and-mouth crisis in Britain, she became secretary of state for the new department, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. But despite her left-wing credentials, she has proved a loyal lieutenant to the prime minister.

Beckett had already become the first woman to be elected to the deputy leadership of the party -- in the summer of 1992 -- and she took over as caretaker leader when Labour leader John Smith died suddenly in May 1994. She was beaten by Tony Blair in the subsequent leadership battle.

Beckett was born near Manchester, in January 1943, and attended Notre Dame High School, Manchester and Manchester College of Science and Technology and went on to train as an apprentice engineer.

She was drawn into politics by the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa and apartheid, rather than domestic politics.

In 1979, the year she lost her Commons seat, she married her political mentor Leo Beckett, chairman of her local Labour Party. In 1983, she returned to Westminster, taking Derby South.

Beckett likes nothing better than to head for the hills in her caravan with devoted husband Leo. It remains to be seen though whether she has time for a holiday this summer with a crisis looming over Iran's nuclear program.

'Buff' Hoon

Geoff Hoon, 52, has been one of Blair's most trusted ministers. He presided over the Ministry of Defence during the controversial runup to the Iraq war and its bloody aftermath.

Hoon -- cruelly nicknamed "Buff" -- was little known outside Westminster until he assumed the defence portfolio in 1999. But the run-up to the Iraqi war, the conflict itself, the suicide of government scientist David Kelly, and the Hutton inquiry turned him into a household name.

Many thought Hoon would become the fall-guy of the subsequent Hutton inquiry, but he, along with all his government colleagues, was deemed to have done no wrong.

Hoon, newly appointed as Europe Minister in the Cabinet, is an ardent European, a modernizer and an unqualified supporter of New Labour.

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