Blair will need another reshuffle all too soon

With Iraq and the euro Mr Blair had his hands full - a case for postponing these changes a little longer
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The Independent Online

When Estelle Morris unexpectedly resigned last October, Tony Blair responded with a reshuffle that was logical, confident and explicable. The far-reaching but spatchcock reshuffle that continued yesterday with a series of changes below cabinet level - including the return of Ms Morris - is none of these things.

Let's start with the appointment as Health Secretary of John Reid, a man whose job changes so frequently he has become the ministerial equivalent of a supply teacher. It is the first to violate what was assumed to be a cardinal principle of post-devolution Britain: that Scottish ministers should not be responsible for issues of relevance only to England and Wales.

Downing Street will say, of course, that this is just an abstraction, of interest only to constitutional nerds - an argument rather undermined by the fact that the appointment was nearly stopped on those grounds when the great minds of the Government belatedly focused on the implications. But it isn't. It's good for accountability that a minister's own constituents should be affected by the policies he decides for the rest of the country. Especially when the policies are as radical as foundation hospitals.

It's also questionable whether the genuine talents of Mr Reid, are best suited to the demands of the NHS. He would have been an ideal Defence Secretary - a vacancy which might have arisen had David Blunkett, a conspicuous winner in this reshuffle, not successfully (at least for now) fought off the notion of a full-scale Ministry of Justice, which might have created a job suitable for lawyer Geoff Hoon.

What Mr Reid's appointment underlines is the conspicuous absence, after Alan Milburn's departure - following those of Stephen Byers and Peter Mandelson - of natural ideological Blairites in the Cabinet. Mr Blair's "modernising" agenda for education and health (and his desire for a counterweight, at times, to the formidable powers of the Chancellor) now relies almost wholly on Mr Reid and fellow Kinnockite Charles Clarke, who, with Patricia Hewitt, worked in Mr Kinnock's private office.

But Mr Reid is far from being the only oddity in this reshuffle. It misses the point about the messy birth of the new and ill named Department for Constitutional Affairs to complain that Lord Falconer is a Tony crony. So was Lord Irvine. And Falconer is certainly of cabinet ability. What's more, the creation of a supreme court and allied changes will dispose of an anachronistic and perilous confusion between the executive, legislature and judiciary. Nevertheless, the Tories have a point when they complain bitterly about the almost casual way in which these historic changes have been announced in the midst of a hasty and ill thought-out reshuffle.

Part of the Tories' complaint, of course, is a reactionary opposition to constitutional change of any kind. But the case of the Government for not preceding the change with a White Paper would be a great deal more convincing if, on the closely related subject of true democratising reform of the Lords, it had not created a cumbersome consultative process in advance of taking action. If it's this easy to abolish the 1,400-year-old Lord Chancellorship at a stroke, it would have been just as easy to replace an appointed Lords with a democratic one. The contrast only serves to underline that Mr Blair never wanted anything of the kind.

What's more, welcome as is the planned creation of a supreme court, there are still questions about just how judges will be appointed in future. Given the impatience of ministers like Mr Blunkett with judges who rule against the executive via judicial review, one of them will be how much power ministers will have to select both the judicial appointments commission itself and the candidates they recommend.

Indeed, there is a transient feel to much of this reshuffle. Yesterday's wide-ranging but more minor changes were a good deal more normal - and predictable. The - entirely voluntary - departure of the independent minded Brian Wilson from the Government is a loss. The promotion of Hazel Blears and the colourful Kim Howells is welcome, as is the surprise return of Chris Mullin, who voted against the Iraq war. It would be even better if he had been joined by the moderate and thoughtful John Denham, who resigned as a minister over Iraq. The straight swap between Michael O'Brien and Baroness Symons will give the latter a high profile on the Middle East. Michael Meacher hardly distinguished himself over the famous European fridges directive - but his departure will be genuinely mourned by many in the environmental lobby. Fiona MacTaggart's promotion to the government is overdue. And so on. But it's hard not to believe that Mr Blair will have to embark on yet another reconstruction of his Cabinet -and perhaps of the machinery of government - next year.

The news that reshuffles habitually make is disproportionate to their real importance. And with Iraq and the euro, Mr Blair had his hands full with more pressing issues than a few job changes in his Government - which might have been a case for postponing these a little longer. For reshuffles are, or are supposed to be, the one unequivocal way in which the Prime Minister stamps his authority on the Government. The execution of this one, at least at cabinet level, has been every bit as unimpressive as last October's was impressive.