Election '97: Whitehall anticipates a change at No 10

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A major political row broke over the head of the civil service, Sir Robin Butler, last night after he had briefed journalists about the possible transfer of power from John Major to Tony Blair later this week.

There were strong protests from the Labour camp last night after news of Sir Robin's private briefing was issued on the Press Association news wires which also reported that Mr Blair had confirmed he intended to live in No 10 Downing Street if Labour were elected.

Labour said speculation of this kind was "inaccurate, unhelpful and inappropriate". It angered Labour because all day Mr Blair and other senior party figures had been playing down talk of victory, trying to kill complacency after opinion polls showed Labour's lead had held firm and the Tory camp showed increasing signs of disarray. A Labour spokesman said: "He was being too clever for his own good."

Realising the political implications, the Cabinet Office urged PA to kill the story. Sir Robin outlined three scenarios - a Tory victory, a hung parliament and a Labour win - but spent most time on the latter.

He said if Mr Major conceded defeat, the Prime Minister's principal private secretary, Alex Allen, would arrange an appointment with the Queen. Mr Major would go with Mr Allen and probably his wife. They would arrive in the Prime Minister's official car but leave in another one.

Mr Blair would then go to the Palace and then to Downing Street, where he had confirmed he intends to live. He would start making his Cabinet appointments after a quick look around the flat upstairs which he has never seen.

Shadow ministers have, with Mr Major's blessing, being meeting permanent secretaries since January 1996 and, as with all elections, briefings have been prepared by each department in readiness for victory by any of the three parties.

The Department for Education and Employment has bought equipment ready for the possibility that David Blunkett, who is blind, will become the secretary of state, one of the only commitments made publicly by Mr Blair.

Sir Robin's briefing was all the more surprising, given that at the beginning of the campaign he had sent a memo to all civil servants telling them to avoid discussing policy, or any controversial areas.