The Sir Humphreys make way for Blairite mandarins

Labour is bent on changing the ways of Whitehall, reports David Walker
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The Independent Online
A flurry of retirements and resignations is clearing Whitehall's top ranks, giving Labour ministers a once-and-for-all chance to appoint a new generation of mandarins more in tune with Blairite visions and values.

Among the jobs now open are the permanent secretaryships at the Home Office, Health and Northern Ireland. Shortly to become vacant are the top positions at Social Security and the Scottish Office, and, probably, Agriculture, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Treasury.

After an initial honeymoon with the Civil Service, Labour ministers have begun questioning the quality of the briefings they are being given by officials. Some have criticised "Tory holdovers" and complained that officials have not adjusted to Labour ways of thinking.

As a result, some ministers are demanding that the Cabinet Office open up the process of appointments so that outsiders are at least considered for permanent secretaryships. Frank Dobson's impatience with the official slate of candidates to succeed Sir Graham Hart at the Department of Health is understood to have delayed proceedings there. Among potential outsiders under consideration are Andrew Foster, controller of the Audit Commission and a Labour favourite.

In some departments a subtle war of nerves is under way to try to create a vacancy. At the Lord Chancellor's Department, the permanent secretaary, Sir Thomas Legg, does not have to go at the normal Civil Service retirement age of 60 and has shown no inclination to retire.

Treasury permanent secretary Sir Terry Burns is known to be reluctant to go, but Treasury sources say that his position is becoming "untenable". "He has nothing to do," said a fellow mandarin. His relations with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, are said to be no more than workmanlike, and possible successors have already been sounded out, including John Major's former press officer, Gus O'Donnell, who is now head of economics at the British Embassy in Washington.

Another possible returner from abroad is Sir Stephen Wall, UK permanent representative at the European Union in Brussels, who is thought to have purged himself of his close association with Mr Major when he worked in the No 10 private office.

Mr Brown's youthful adviser, Ed Balls, will have an important say on who replaces Sir Terry. The departure this autumn of Sir Alan Budd, chief economic adviser, has given the new team a chance to downgrade this job - which Mr Balls himself effectively fills.

Rachel Lomax, permanent secretary at the Welsh Office, told colleagues she was "sick and tired" of seeing her name mentioned in connection with the Treasury job and had every intention of staying in Cardiff.

The appointments game has been made more complex than usual by two factors. One is Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio, who has made himself the unofficial minister for Whitehall and fancies himself a good judge of Civil Service character.

The other is the fact that the Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service, Sir Robin Butler, is himself retiring at the end of the year. His successor, Sir Richard Wilson, permanent secretary at the Home Office, will have to be consulted on the new mandarins since he will have to co- operate closely with them if the machinery of government is to work.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is taking a keen interest in who succeeds Sir Richard. Likely official candidates include Joe Pilling, a deputy secretary in the Department of Health and former prisons chief, and Stephen Boys Smith, currently in charge of police policy at the Home Office. Mr Straw's special adviser, Norman Warner, is a former civil servant who, insiders say, may have some old scores to settle. A possible appointment from outside the Home Office is Richard Mottram, permanent secretary at Defence.

Finding a successor for Sir Russell Hillhouse at the Scottish Office and Sir Terry Burns will be tricky. Sir Russell is retiring, as the rules prescribe, on his 60th birthday next spring. After Thursday's pro-devolution vote, normal Whitehall procedures for replacing him may have to be suspended if the Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists and other likely players in the new Edinburgh assembly are going to be consulted.

Labour's mark is already being felt lower down the Civil Service hierarchy after the summer resignations of several leading information chiefs. Liz Drummond, information director at the Scottish Office, is retiring early, partly because of problems with Wendy Alexander, Donald Dewar's strong-minded special adviser. Andy Wood is leaving the Northern Ireland Office because of "lack of personal chemistry" with Mo Mowlam, and Jill Rutter ceased to be the Treasury's press chief. Last week, Gill Samuel, information head at Defence, unexpectedly moved on to other work.

Some permanent secretaries think the arrival of media-savvy special advisers has created a "crisis" for the Government Information Service role. They say the incoming Cabinet Secretary must, as a matter of priority, seek the agreement of ministers to new guidelines for the work of the information service.

Certain second-rank officials - some of whom had considered their careers over under the Tories - may now be in the frame for advancement. Brian Fox, the wise old Cabinet Office personnel chief who keeps tabs on Whitehall's "high-fliers" and likely runners, is currently in heavy demand.