New head for Tote held up for polls

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The choice of a successor to Lord Wyatt of Weeford as chairman of the Tote has been delayed until after the general election following a clash between Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and Jack Straw, it emerged last night.

The appointment was put on hold until after 1 May - the day a new chairman should take over - after Mr Straw, the shadow home secretary, rejected the Home Secretary, Michael Howard's surprise choice of Major-General Guy Watkins, 63, the former chief executive of the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club.

Mr Howard, who was obliged to consult his Labour shadow over the pounds 75,000- a-year post as head of the state-run pool betting operation, put forward General Watkins's name on Thursday night. But his winning candidate became a victim of early general election skirmishes. Mr Straw said he wanted to interview the shortlist of applicants, but Mr Howard refused. If Labour wins the general election, however, Mr Straw will be in a position to do so.

A member of the Home Secretary's team said last night: "A name was put forward to Jack Straw who decided he could not accept it but wanted a wider list of people to look at. There is a presumption that, once a general election has been called, no public appointments will be made without the agreement of the Opposition, unless there is a need for urgency."

Mr Straw said yesterday that Labour had made a formal request some time ago to be consulted over the appointment. He said that the Home Secretary had chosen Parliament's last business day to ask for approval of the candidate. He told Mr Howard that "it was inappropriate to make such a major public appointment now that the election has actually been called".

"If Labour is successful in the general election," he said later, "I will give priority to this appointment," he said.

Candidates were informed of the delay by telephone yesterday lunchtime. Home Office officials are now considering what interim arrangements are to be made after Lord Wyatt stands down at the end of April.

Lord Wyatt, whose favourite candidate is Sir William Rous, a retired Army Board member, refused to comment. But Lord Wakeham, chairman of the British Horseracing Board, said: "I am disappointed that we have not got a new chairman of the Tote, but I accept that these things happen when there is a general election.

"I think Howard had no option but to get Straw's agreement because it would have been difficult for a candidate to accept the post without that agreement."