Cunningham stories claim first scalp Press chief is ousted after

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The Independent Online
THE HEAD of the press office at the Ministry of Agriculture (Maff) has been pushed out of his job, it was announced yesterday. Graham Blakeway, the director of information, will leave in the summer.

While there is no suggestion of failures by Mr Blakeway, ministerial sources said Jack Cunningham, the former minister of agriculture, had been furious about the failure of the press office to stop highly damaging leaks about his expensive tastes in furniture and travel at taxpayers' expense. The stories followed Mr Cunningham after his move to the Cabinet Office. As a result he was forced to cancel the order of a pounds 15,000 table and chairs in Brazilian hardwood and was pilloried for using Concorde for a ministerial trip to the United States.

The official press release announcing Mr Blakeway's departure said Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister "has warmly thanked him for the contribution he has made to the department over the past three years". But it was coupled with biting criticism of his department after a review ordered by Mr Cunningham in the wake of the BSE crisis. It found "Maff's broad range of policies and activities were being undersold". A statement yesterday said: "The review team concluded that the fundamental problem was the culture of the organisation as a whole exacerbated by the current status of the information division in Maff. In the team's view, staff elsewhere in the ministry accorded too low a priority to communications and information work. This had contributed substantially to the difficulties faced by Maff's information professionals."

Mr Blakeway, a quietly spoken Scot, is to be replaced by Robert Lowson, a senior official dealing with agriculture with the European Union in Brussels, who will take on a new title as director of communications.

Mr Blakeway is the tenth victim of the Whitehall "purge"of government press officers since the 1997 general election. The move may be seen as "control freak" tendencies at Number 10, which have led to a number of high-profile departures, including that of Andy Wood, who was Mo Mowlam's press officer at the Northern Ireland Office, and Jill Rutter, who left the Treasury press office after Gordon Brown became Chancellor.