Spin doctors caught on the hop by Cran's resignation set over hy four inyes

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The first that the spokeswoman at the Northern Ireland Office knew of James Cran's resignation as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Sir Patrick Mayhew, her boss, was when she read an internal notice three days ago.

That was what she told The Independent when we rang on Monday afternoon to ask if it was true Mr Cran, a Euro-sceptic and pro-Unionist, was leaving the Government. She could shed no light on why he had gone. A senior Tory source confirmed Mr Cran had departed, but could not say more because he had to dash to a meeting.

At Bournemouth, Tory spin doctors went to work. Mr Cran had resigned "two months ago, so it is an old story" was one version. He has gone because his majority is threatened by boundary changes. Mr Cran is the MP for prosperous Beverley, with a majority of 16,000.

If Mr Cran went two months ago, it had not been made public. Not even that: hardly anyone within the party hierarchy knew. And, as one seasoned Whitehall-watcher pointed out, filling a PPS's shoes happens smoothly and swiftly and does not normally take two months.

On Newsnight, Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, gave a different timetable. In a nervous performance, he said he had known about Mr Cran's resignation "three weeks" ago. He was going because he needed to work on his constituency.

When Jeremy Paxman replied that Beverley was a safe Tory area, Mr Mawhinney gave an impression of a rabbit caught in the headlights and did not respond.

When The Independent spoke to an official close to Sir Patrick, yet another account of Mr Cran's departure was forthcoming. He had written to Sir Patrick "three to four weeks ago" stating his intention to resign. His resignation had not been accepted and had been kept under wraps because Sir Patrick had wanted to talk to him first.

In his letter, Mr Cran said he wanted to spend more time in his constituency, but the official said the view of Sir Patrick was that he "wants to be freed up to pursue his greater agenda about Europe". In the run-up to the election, said the official, there was little doubt among those at the top of the party that Mr Cran wanted the "liberty to speak his mind on Europe".

Contrary to the spin being played out at Bournemouth, which said that Mr Cran's position was minor and his departure was not a blow, the official said it was "a loss" and he had been "highly rated".

Finally, there was Mr Cran himself. He claimed there was no foundation in the claim that he wanted to pursue his line on Europe. "Indeed, I am of the view that the Euro-sceptical point of view within the country is best-preserved by backing Major's European policy. To do anything else means that Blair is in Downing Street and then the sovereignty of the country is given away."

His own reason for going was that "18 months as parliamentary aide to a Cabinet minister is, for me, just about the right time. When I did 18 months or thereabouts, I decided to step down. It was as simple as that."