Mandarin charmer takes top Civil Service posts

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The Independent Online
Sir Richard Wilson, who was former home secretary Michael Howard's favourite civil servant, was yesterday appointed by Tony Blair as Cabinet Secretary and head of the home Civil Service. The appointment confounds speculation in Whitehall that Labour would either split the two jobs or appoint someone less obviously a clone of the retiring incumbent, Sir Robin Butler.

The choice of Sir Richard, 54, permanent secretary at the Home Office, implies that Labour has ruled out radical change at the centre of government. The new man is an old-style ministerial adviser with great experience of the machine and immense personal charm. Tall, with a droll manner, Sir Richard's colleagues nicknamed him "super" because of his excessive use of the word. His charm seems to work, however: like Orpheus, he proved able to tame even such angry political beasts as Michael Howard.

Having served as permanent secretary at the Department of the Environment with Mr Howard, he was asked to move to the Home Office when the latter became Home Secretary in 1994. He is widely credited with holding that department together through a stormy period, during which Mr Howard sacked the head of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis, and had to pay him substantial compensation after a court case.

Sir Richard was widely tipped to succeed Sir Robin Butler, who retires at the end of December - once Labour had decided against reorganising the heart of Whitehall. Asked by Tony Blair to take soundings, Peter Mandelson, the minister without portfolio, appears to have decided that the existing structure works well, even though Sir Robin Butler has had little time for the job of leading the Civil Service.

Outside the office, Sir Richard lives a quiet domestic life in Buckinghamshire with his wife, Caroline, herself the daughter of a permanent secretary. His new salary will be on a scale of pounds 92,480-pounds 158,750. The Cabinet Secretary also qualifies for performance bonuses, decided by the Prime Minister in consultation with advisers from private business.

Whitehall considers Sir Richard (Radley College and Cambridge) more conservative and "mandarin" than the two other officials considered for the top job, Richard Mottram ( King Edward VI Camp Hill School, Birmingham, and Keele University), permanent secretary at defence, and Andrew Turnbull (Enfield Grammar and Cambridge) head of environment, transport and the regions. The head of the Civil Service plays a key role in the appointment of permanent secretaries and so Sir Richard Wilson's mark will be felt for years to come.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister paid tribute to Sir Robin Butler's handling of the transition from the Tories to Labour, saying that this professionalism had been "a real success story for him and the Civil Service".

David Walker