Blair eclipses Tory leader in reshuffle showdown

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Tony Blair shrugged off criticism of his "shambolic" cabinet reshuffle yesterday as he comfortably defeated Iain Duncan Smith in a Commons showdown over the shake-up.

The Prime Minister, who has been thrown on to the defensive about his reshuffle, came out fighting and was helped by a poor performance by Mr Duncan Smith, who came in for strong criticism from senior Tories.

Lord Tebbit, Mr Duncan Smith's political mentor and predecessor as MP for Chingford, said: "He went on too long and asked too many questions. He allowed the Prime Minister to get away with it." A Tory MP added: "He could not have done any worse." The Tory leadership protested that Mr Duncan Smith had been drowned out by organised barracking from Labour MPs.

Most Labour MPs rallied behind Mr Blair after he challenged Mr Duncan Smith to say whether the Tories supported his plans to abolish the 1,400-year role of Lord Chancellor, create a supreme court and set up an independent commission to appoint judges.

When the Tory leader refused to be drawn, Mr Blair accused him of wanting to "fight to the death to keep the minister in charge of our courts system in a full-bottomed wig, eighteenth century breeches and women's tights, sitting on a woolsack."

Mr Blair, who had been summoned to the Commons by the Speaker, Michael Martin, to explain his reshuffle, appeared to draw a line under the row after a week of damaging headlines, defending what he called "very sensible modernising changes". It was "increasingly anomalous" for a minister, the Lord Chancellor, to choose judges, he said. And in a jibe at the Tories he added: "Here we are with this great constitutional outrage, yet the Conservatives cannot even tell us whether they are in favour of the changes or against the changes. They are outraged don't knows."

Amid rowdy scenes, Mr Duncan Smith described the shake-up as the "most botched, bungled and damaged reshuffle in modern times". He added: "The Prime Minister ripped up the constitution in a matter of hours without consultation, a monumental change on the back of a cabinet reshuffle as though our constitution was the Prime Minister's plaything."

As Lord Falconer of Thoroton was sworn in as Lord Chancellor, the Tory MP Nicholas Soames gave the clearest signal yet that the Queen was unhappy with the way the post was abolished. Mr Soames, a close friend of the Prince of Wales, told Mr Blair the removal of the Lord Chancellor without extensive consultation was "an affront both to the Crown and to Parliament."

Bob Marshall-Andrews, a Labour MP, told the Prime Minister: "Many of us in this House and outside it have long campaigned for the executive functions of the Lord Chancellor to be transferred from an unelected, patronage-appointed official, to a Secretary of State in this House answerable to an elected House of Commons. Would you confirm that with these new reforms those functions will now be exercised by an unelected patronage-appointed official in the House of Lords answerable to the unelected House of Lords?"

John Redwood, the former Tory cabinet minister, asked Mr Blair: "Isn't it a rather expensive way of getting rid of an old man in tights and wouldn't it have been cheaper to have bought him a pair of trousers?"

Earlier, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, admitted the shake-up had been badly handled. "It wasn't as good as we would have wished," he said on BBC Radio 4. "We had 48 hours immediately afterwards which were very uncomfortable."

Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a former Tory lord chancellor, told Radio 4 that the law lords should not be "muzzled" and removed from the House of Lords as the Government planned. "I also think that the genius of our constitution has been change rather than destruction and I wonder whether it wouldn't be possible to change the Lord Chancellor's functions without destroying the office altogether," he said.