Health secretary Alan Johnson has been commended for backing managers' plans to reconfigure hospital services in Manchester - as Conservatives face the fallout from a row about district general hospitals.

Mr Johnson last week endorsed recommendations from the independent reconfiguration panel to reduce the number of consultant-led maternity services and neonatal units in Greater Manchester and cut the number of accident and emergency units in the north east of the county to three.

Proposed changes to maternity services in Greater Manchester hit the headlines after meeting opposition from government minister Hazel Blears. NHS Confederation chief executive Dr Gill Morgan said this was an endorsement of local consultation. 'Where the public and local councils are effectively engaged, a compelling case for reconfiguration can be made and supported.'

NHS Alliance chair Dr Michael Dixon said the decision backed NHS chief executive David Nicholson's assertions that managers were being left to get on with decision-making.

'There is no doubt Alan Johnson is behind the reform programme. He is also very much behind NHS clinicians and managers being allowed to make decisions,' he said.

In July, Mr Johnson gave up the power to decide which cases to refer to the panel, saying all reconfiguration plans would be sent to the panel.

The Manchester decision came as the Conservatives were struggling to shake off the fall-out from their offensive against reconfigurations.

Controversy raged for several days over the list of 29 district general hospitals they said were facing cuts. The Department of Health, a Conservative party researcher and a Tory MP were among those disputing some of the hospitals on the list.

Managers in Partnership chief executive John Restell said the mistakes would not endear the party to NHS managers. 'The list was obviously a cock-up, but the message behind it we would never accept.'

King's Fund head of policy Jennifer Dixon said she thought it 'incongruous' that the party had called for local accountability in a June 'white paper' but were now demanding an end to A&E and maternity changes.