Blair under fire over 'botched' reshuffle

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Tony Blair tried to regain the initiative last night, after criticism that he had "botched" the reshuffle of the Cabinet, by promoting several Blairites in a big shake-up of the Government's junior and middle ranks.

In a surprise move, Estelle Morris returned as Arts minister eight months after resigning as Secretary of State for Education, saying she could not handle the job.

Chris Mullin, a left-wing former minister who voted against the Iraq war in March, was appointed a Foreign Office minister in a gesture of reconciliation by Mr Blair.

But last night's appointments were overshadowed by confusion in Whitehall over Thursday's changes to the Cabinet. Downing Street said the Scottish and Welsh Offices would be "subsumed" within the new Department for Constitutional Affairs, headed by Lord Falconer of Thoroton, whose appointment produced accusations Mr Blair had promoted a "crony" to the Cabinet. But Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons and Secretary of State for Wales, insisted the Welsh Office would exist. He agreed the changes could have been explained "far more effectively" but another minister said privately: "It's a shambles."

Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, accused the Prime Minister of "behaving like a tinpot dictator" and treating the British constitution as "his own personal plaything".

In last night's changes, eight ministers resigned. They included the veteran Environment minister Michael Meacher and Nick Brown, a close ally of Gordon Brown. He was replaced as minister for Work by Des Browne, another ally of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The others leaving their posts were Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, succeeded as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster by Douglas Alexander; Barbara Roche; Baroness Blackstone; Brian Wilson; Lewis Moonie and Sally Keeble. Blairites in new jobs include Margaret Hodge, who becomes minister for Children, Alan Johnson and Phil Woolas.