New sleaze row knocks at door of No10

Click to follow
Downing Street yesterday reacted angrily to an accusation that the Prime Minister was threatening to create a new "sleaze" culture at the heart of Whitehall.

The attack follows widespread media speculation that Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff at No 10, was to be appointed to the post of Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary. Those reports have startled Whitehall insiders, and Peter Hennessy, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of London, told The Independent: "You could almost say it was sleazy. Why does he need this bauble?"

But a senior No 10 source said last night that Mr Powell had been appointed chief of staff and would remain in that job. When Alex Allan, the current Principal Private Secretary, moves to another posting later this year, he will be replaced by another civil servant.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "Whoever is winding up Mr Hennessy, he would do well to check his facts before making ridiculous statements."

Although Mr Powell is a former diplomat, he was recruited to head Mr Blair's office as Leader of the Opposition and his transfer to Downing Street is a political appointment.

But Ann Taylor, Leader of the Commons, told BBC television's On the Record: "Some of the things that the Principal Private Secretary used to do in the past ... are going to be done by somebody else, and the political side will go through Jonathan Powell."

Professor Hennessy was concerned that the Principal Private Secretary's role was that of "junction box" for the civil service, involving a number of sensitive issues like security and intelligence, relations with Buckingham Palace, and honours. But The Independent has been told that those functions will be covered by the Prime Minister's other private secretaries, all of whom would come from within the civil service.

Clearly disturbed by the suggestion that Mr Powell might take on that role, Professor Hennessy said Mr Blair had promised to take action against quangos and the patronage state. "Yet what he is proposing means that working within some feet of him, at Number 10, he will have created his own version of the patronage state."

The intensely political nature of the new government appears to be caught some of Whitehall's mandarins by surprise. But having spent so many years in the political wilderness, many of them observing Baroness Thatcher's hardline political style, Mr Blair and Labour's most senior ministers are not in a mood for half measures.

Mr Blair is expected to give a written Commons reply on the numbers of political appointments to Whitehall posts this week, including 14 appointments to the No 10 Policy Unit.

But the point was being made last night that while numbers of political appointees might have risen, the pay bill would be roughly the same as it had been for Tory government political appointments.

Labour and civil service, page 5

Leading article, page 14