Politics: Whitehall press chiefs defy `purge'

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More government press officers could be moved or retired early in the `purge' to modernise the Whitehall information machine. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, discovers that some of the victims have formed a `Tumbril Club'.

The Whitehall veterans who are being "culled" in the drive to sharpen up the presentation of the Government's message are keeping a sense of humour about the bloodletting.

The "Tumbril Club" has been formed by some of the victims as a mark of defiance at the brutal way they feel they are being treated. Rumours were circulating in Whitehall yesterday that at least two more heads could roll. One of the people thought to be under threat said: "I am happy where I am, and I am staying." But that may not be the final word.

John Redwood, a Shadow Cabinet spokesman, accused the Government of attempting to replace information officers with "puppets who dance to the tune of new Labour secrecy."

The unions representing the civil servants do not accept that charge, and have signalled their readiness to respond to the need for improvements in presenting government announcements, including seeing some press officers work with civil servants on policy development.

However, suspicions were raised about a "purge" after the axe fell on Whitehall press chiefs who clashed with their ministers, while others appeared to jump before they were pushed. But Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, is determined to keep up the pace of change, which could produce more members for the "Tumbril Club".

Women members are being offered a scarf and men offered ties with the club's own motif - "a guillotine rampant" and a tumbril, like the cart used in the French revolution to take away the bourgeoisie for beheading. Andy Wood, one of its members, said: "We thought it would be a nice idea. We might have a Christmas Party as well."

Seven heads of the Government Information Service have qualified by resigning, being moved, or offered early retirement. Mr Wood, director of information at the Northern Ireland Office, was called in by the permanent secretary to be told that there was a "lack of chemistry" with Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State. Since then, he has been on what Whitehall insiders call "gardening leave".