AS TORIES TURN LONDON BLUE...BLOODBATH. Battered Blair Takes an Axe to His Cabinet Failures Clarke out, Straw Shifted, Prescott Stripped of Power Cameron Bolstered by Big Election Gains

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Byline: JOE MURPHY

TONY BLAIR wielded the axe on his Cabinet today in a message of defiance to those calling on him to quit.

He fired Charles Clarke as Home Secretary, demoted Jack Straw from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the Commons and stripped John Prescott of part of his job.

Labour chairman Ian McCartney was sacked after dreadful council election results which saw David Cameron's Tories turn London blue.

Geoff Hoon was demoted and chief whip Hilary Armstrong was being moved to a more junior job.

About half the Cabinet was moved around in a morning of turmoil, hallmarked by wild rumours and bruised egos.

Some likened it to Harold Macmillan's 1962 "night of the long knives" when seven Cabinet ministers were axed.

It was an extraordinary display of power by the Prime Minister and one that declared that he regards his right to run the Government as undiminished by a night of defeats in town halls. Another crystal clear message could be seen in the disappointment for several ministers sympathetic to Gordon Brown. It meant that Mr Blair is not ready to begin the handover process to the Chancellor.

There were signs of tensions between the Premier and his impatient successor. Mr Brown distanced himself from the reshuffle, saying he had not been consulted.

He described last night's council results as "a warning shot" from the electorate - a phrase which suggested things could get worse without radical change - and contrasted with No10's belief that a diet of more Blairism was the key to recovery. Some of Mr Brown's allies were more direct. Nick Brown, the former chief whip, suggested it was time for Mr Blair to stand aside.

Another key appointment is John Reid moving from defence to become Home Secretary to sort out the prisoner release crisis.

A battle-hardened veteran of several departments, he is seen as an effective fireman though it will mean a Scottish MP running a department that covers only England and Wales.

Treasury chief secretary Des Browne replaced Dr Reid at defence.

The new Foreign Secretary is Margaret Beckett, the first woman to hold the post.

Ruth Kelly looked set to move from education, where she has struggled, to take control of the roles given up by Mr Prescott: local government and planning.

Rising star Alan Johnson was expected to take over as Education Secretary.

He pushed through top-up fees as a junior minister and is regarded as a savvy ex-union leader who could become Prime Minister.

Douglas Alexander was tipped to take over at transport after Alistair Darling moved to the Department of Trade and Industry.

Mr Hoon becomes the Minister for Europe - but will be a nonvoting observer in Cabinet and junior to Mrs Beckett. …