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Bottomley set to be moved in July reshuffle

Downing Street yesterday mounted a concerted effort to bolster the position of Virginia Bottomley by making it known she had been supported by the Cabinet against Tory backbench criticism of her handling of London hospital closures.

As John Major and the Cabinet came to her rescue, Mrs Bottomley's future at the Department of Health remained in doubt. She is expected to be moved, possibly to the Department of Environment, in a Cabinet reshuffle in July.

Doctors' leaders said they feared that John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales, would be moved to replace her. Mr Redwood has a deep knowledge of the health service, and this week protected local hospitals, but is one of the leading right-wingers in the Cabinet who is hard on expenditure.

Mrs Bottomley was backed by her husband, Peter Bottomley, Tory MP for Eltham, who was one of the few London Tory MPs to support her plans.

"The way I put it, and I haven't got her authority to say this, is that when she is an old woman with a frame, she'll be able to look up at the health service and say I helped to make it go on and improve - achieve the miracle of providing without charge to everybody, all conditions, all ages, perhaps the best service in the world. Others will be able to look down at their press cuttings," Mr Bottomley said on BSkyB.

Mr Bottomley referred on BBC Radio to her three uncles; Robert Poulton- Palmer, a rugby blue at Oxford; Kenneth Garnett, a rowing blue at Cambridge; and Stuart Garnett, founder of the Sea Scouts - who all died in action in the First World War - as an example of her courage, which was questioned this week by Peter Brooke, her former Cabinet colleague.

Sir John Gorst, another Tory backbench critic, said her eyes "glazed over" but Mr Bottomley said: "The world is full of two groups of people - those who are good at throwing bricks through windows and producing phrases which get repeated; and those who go around like glaziers and window cleaners. On the whole, the glaziers and window cleaners get less attention."

Asked whether she was still happy in her role, he said: "She has the habit of Sir Keith Joseph of talking about the responsibilities of the holder of her office . . . I think you will find that the decisions are not all perfect but generally right and seen to be right."

Mrs Bottomley defended her decision last night: "We needed to announce a final decision and we needed to build for the future without further delay . . . The public will become more knowledgeable about patient outcomes and as that happens so the force of the arguments will come across.

"There is a gulf between the firmly held views of the experts and the understandable concerns of the public about their hospitals."

Insiders dismissed rumours that the strain had brought her to breaking point as "completely bonkers".