Speaker summons Blair to explain reshuffle

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair's ill-fated cabinet reshuffle sank deeper into trouble last night when he was summoned by the Commons Speaker to explain his changes to MPs tomorrow.

After pressure from the Tories, the Prime Minister was forced to make an unusual Commons statement on his reshuffle six days after he announced controversial changes to the judicial and legal systems, the Scottish Office and Welsh Office.

There was further embarrassment for Mr Blair when he dodged a head-to-head confrontation with Iain Duncan Smith on the shake-up today in an emergency Commons debate staged by the Tories.

Mr Duncan Smith accused Mr Blair of "running scared" after the Government said that Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons and Welsh Secretary, would take part in the debate, even though the Tory leader announced he would lead the Opposition attack.

"This is unacceptable and absurd," Mr Duncan Smith said. "The Prime Minister was the architect of this botched reshuffle, not his part-time Welsh Secretary." Eric Forth, the shadow leader of the Commons, will open today's debate unless Mr Blair changes his mind.

Downing Street said Mr Blair would use tomorrow's statement to spell out the radical reforms he unveiled last week, including the abolition of the 1,400-year-old position of Lord Chancellor, insisting they would outlast the temporary fuss over the announcement.

There was further controversy yesterday over an apparent threat by Mr Hain to clip the powers of the House of Lords by bringing the "guillotine" procedure used to cut short debate in the Commons. He told BBC Radio 4: "Now the task is to modernise the House of Lords, which has got very old-fashioned procedures that are extremely time consuming and don't allow government business to be carried through and allow effective continual filibustering by the Opposition and backbenchers."

Since 1997, Labour has suffered almost 200 defeats in the second chamber, where it does not have a majority, while it has never lost a whipped vote in the Commons. Mr Hain's comments were criticised by Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat peers. Lord Richard, Labour's former leader of the Lords, said: "I don't think he really understands what the Lords actually does." He added: "I think that it is right that the second chamber, in so far as it can, acts as a kind of check on the way that the executive operates."

There was also strong criticism of Mr Blair's failure to consult the Lords before announcing changes that will have a big impact on the second chamber.

The former Commons speaker Baroness Boothroyd said: "I am rather surprised at the speed at which it was done without any pre-consultation with the Lords and any other organisation."

Lord Williams of Mostyn, Leader of the Lords, yesterday became the first cabinet minister to apologise for the chaotic reshuffle. He accepted the announcement of the plans had been received by peers with feelings of "mortification, disappointment and discourtesy".

He told the Lords: "If there was discourtesy, I then regret it and apologise for it if your Lordships saw it in that way."

Lord Williams announced a week of consultation on plans to reform the speakership of the Lords, currently held by the Lord Chancellor. He said he would announce recommendations on Wednesday next week, which would be put to the Lords' Procedure Committee, if a consensus emerged on the way forward.

Lord Strathclyde, the Tory leader in the Lords, complained that Mr Blair had conducted the "most shambolic, botched reshuffle in living memory" and had been guilty of the "greatest discourtesy to this House".

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