Piers Morgan yesterday resigned as editor of the News of the World to take the helm at the Daily Mirror, a move that has provoked a bitter dispute between the rival newspaper groups.
The appointment is part of a major restructuring in the management of Mirror Group. Mr Morgan will replace Colin Myler, who becomes managing director of the Daily and Sunday Mirror titles. A senior Mirror Group source emphasised last night that Mr Myler's new role did not represent "a sideways move".
Although rumours of a switch to the Mirror had been circulating for some months, the timing of Mr Morgan's resignation is thought to have caught News International, which publishes the News of the World, by surprise.
Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News International, was said to be furious about Mr Morgan's decision to step down. A statement by the newspaper group last night suggested it would try to hold the departing editor to his contract, which has between a year and 18 months to run.
"Piers Morgan remains editor of the News of the World under the terms of his contract," the statement said.
When Mr Morgan, a former showbiz columnist on the Sun, was appointed editor of the News of the World in January last year, he became Britain's youngest national newspaper editor at the age of 28. His elevation was largely due to lobbying from Kelvin MacKenzie, Mr Morgan's editor on the Sun, now head of the Mirror Group's television interests.
A series of vintage tabloid scoops followed, restoring the newspaper's fierce reputation as the "News of the Screws". It broke the story of the Princess of Wales's alleged nuisance calls to her art dealer friend Oliver Hoare; of Bienvenida Buck's affair with the chief of defence staff, Sir Peter Harding, (he subsequently resigned) and of the former minister Alan Clark's affairs with three female members of the Harkess family.
At the beginning of this year, Mr Morgan's position looked secure, the gilt to his first 12 months in the editor's chair provided by a specially created What the Papers Say award for "Scoops of the Year".
However, doubts about his judgement set in by the spring. In April, the paper ran a front-page story that Countess Spencer, the Princess of Wales's sister-in-law, was receiving treatment at a private addiction clinic. The ensuing censure by the Press Complaints Commission earned Mr Morgan a humiliatingly public rebuke from an incensed Mr Murdoch.
Confirmation that the newspaper was going too far came with another front- page revelation a week later that a divorced Conservative MP had been involved in a three-in-a-bed romp with a man and woman, both of whom were single.
Senior journalists at the Daily Mirror greeted the news of Mr Morgan's appointment with concern yesterday. One said: "The big fear is for the left-wing leanings of the paper. There must also be worries that we'll be going down-market with more kiss-and-tell stories. Although we're a tabloid at the lower end of the market, we've always managed to cover the serious news in a way that our readers would understand."