Blair accused of sidelining transport in 'clumsy' shake-up

The row over Tony Blair's "botched" cabinet reshuffle deepened yesterday amid accusations that transport had been downgraded as a priority and the Scottish and Welsh offices left in a state of chaos.

Downing Street said that the posts of Welsh Secretary and Scottish Secretary had not been abolished as first believed.

A spokesman said that Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, would take the post of Scottish Secretary as an extra job. This led to claims that transport was no longer a priority as Mr Darling would have to devote time to his new role. Mr Blair's official spokesman denied that the move meant the transport portfolio was being downgraded.

He said: "The Prime Minister believes that Alistair Darling is a very talented Secretary of State who has shown a significant ability to do big jobs. In respect of transport, there is clearly a big job to be done and Alistair Darling will continue to have a team under him working hard on these issues."

But the Tories attacked the changes and even Downing Street admitted that it had been "hazy" about the Whitehall shake-up.

Sources close to Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, and Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary ­ among the few Blairites left in the Cabinet ­ say in The Times today that they are exasperated at the "timidity" of the reshuffle.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman conceded that he did not know what would happen to the staff, permanent secretaries and buildings of the Welsh and Scottish offices.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, also attacked the "democratic monstrosity" of appointing John Reid to oversee health in England and Wales. Mr Reid would be pushing foundation hospitals south of the border, while having no responsibility for health in his own Scottish constituency, he said. The Scottish Executive has vetoed the foundation plan.

Mr Reid tried to shrug off claims that he faced problems because he was a Scottish MP covering the NHS in England and Wales. "When they appointed Sven Goran Eriksson as England manager, there was a huge fuss about it, but actually what people want to know now is: has he been a good manager?" he said.

Mr Reid dismissed suggestions he did not have the "modernising" credentials to carry on the work of his predecessor, Alan Milburn. "If I may say so, with great respect to our Prime Minister, I was a Blairite before Blair was ever heard of. People like Gordon Brown, myself and others have been arch-modernisers for 20 years."

A Downing Street spokesman said that patients were not concerned about where the Health Secretary came from and would judge him by the results he delivered. Michael Connarty, Labour MP for Falkirk East, said there were suspicions that an arrangement had been hurriedly drawn up when it was decided to move Mr Reid to the Department of Health in response to Mr Milburn's surprise departure. He told BBC Radio 4's The World at One programme: "They were ad libbing. This is a Heath Robinson fix."

Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons and Welsh Secretary, admitted Downing Street could have explained the changes "far more effectively". While Downing Street said that under the new system, the old Scottish and Welsh offices would be "subsumed" within the new Department for Constitutional Affairs, Mr Hain insisted that the Welsh Office would still exist.

"I stay as Secretary of State, the Wales Office will remain and Wales's voice, far from being sidelined, is still right there at secretary of state level round the cabinet table," he said.

Mr Hain denied he would have insufficient time as Leader of the House to represent Welsh interests in Westminster and pilot Welsh legislation through the Commons. "I've been doing a job, which ends today, at the convention on the future of Europe added on to my Secretary of State for Wales job. People perhaps are looking at Secretary of State for Wales and Scotland as if devolution hadn't happened. It has, and therefore the role has changed."

He also stressed that he felt it was a function of his job to "keep in touch with backbench Labour MPs in particular and MPs in general to make sure that the Government is better tied into the Commons".

¿ A Populus poll for today's Times shows Mr Blair has lost the trust of a third of voters as a result of the Iraq war.

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