London (CNSNews.com) - Prime Minister Tony Blair has removed from his cabinet the most outspoken opponent of the controversial American proposal for a National Missile Defense (NMD) system.
Blair moved Peter Hain from the Foreign Office to eliminate a potential problem in his government's relationship with the new Bush administration, the opposition Conservative Party claimed.
Hain, a junior Foreign Office minister, was made Energy Secretary as part of a mini-cabinet reshuffle, prompted by the departure from government this week of the disgraced former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson.
Although Hain's new portfolio is an important one, it lacks the glamour and media profile of his old one, and the Conservatives were quick to characterize the shift as a "demotion."
At the Foreign Office, Hain was responsible for Britain's relations with the Middle East, Africa and human rights issues.
But as a longstanding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), with strong views about weapons of mass destruction, he voiced his opposition to NMD, sometimes called "son of Star Wars" after President Reagan's original proposal.
Hain's former boss, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, is himself a former CND member and also reported to be privately unhappy with the idea that Britain may be called on to collaborate with the Americans on NMD.
But unlike Cook, Hain has made his views public. Asked during a television news show last year whether he supported a "limited Star Wars program," he is quoted as replying: "I don't like the idea of a Star Wars program, limited or unlimited."
Over the past year, the Conservatives have accused Blair of presiding over a cabinet split between the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defense on the issue.
Conservative leader William Hague earlier this month said a future Conservative government would enthusiastically support NMD. He challenged Blair to express his backing now.
The government's official line is that, if and when the Americans request Britain's assistance, the matter will then be considered.
The proposal to develop a limited shield to defend the U.S. - and possibly also its allies - from ballistic missiles fired by hostile states envisages the use of a listening-station in northern England, and would thus need Britain's go-ahead.
Blair told parliament Wednesday that, when Washington puts forward a proposal on NMD, "we will consider it carefully and make our decisions on it, but our closeness to our American allies is well known. However, this is in the box marked 'handle with care' - which is what we will do."
Later that same day, Hain's move was announced as part of the mini reshuffle following the resignation of Mandelson, who lied about his role in an attempt by a wealthy Indian businessman to secure British nationality.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative defense spokesman, said Hain's continued presence in the Foreign Office "would have made any future dealings with the Bush administration very difficult."
He said Hain's CND views reflected those at the heart of the Labor Party.
"Labor's CND credentials have been exposed. They cannot be trusted with the nation's defense. Mr. Blair is doing everything he can to stop this becoming an issue."
Other Labor lawmakers have come out against NMD.
"How could any British government agree to support a scheme that would try to defend the United States by increasing the risk to Great Britain?," Paul Flynn, Labor MP for Newport in Wales, asked Defense Minister Geoff Hoon in the House of Commons on January 15.
"Britain's role in any star wars nuclear exchange would be to offer up our country as a disposable target," he added.
During that same debate, Hain's membership of CND was brought up in the House by the Conservatives.
CND has for decades spearheaded anti-nuclear activities aimed both at the British government and at American bases on UK territory. It is planning protests surrounding the NMD issue. Blair himself is reportedly a former member.
Hain has not commented on the Conservative claims about his move, but said he was looking forward to returning to "bread and butter politics."
The issue of NMD poses difficulties for Blair not just because of his own party's opinions on the subject. Britain's European Union allies' views on the proposal range from concern to outright opposition.
Russia and China have launched angry attacks against the U.S. for considering the proposal, which would necessitate the amendment of a key Cold War-era arms treaty.
President Bush's new Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is an ardent proponent of missile defense.
See Earlier Story:
UK Conservatives Back Missile Defense Plan (12 Jan. 2001)