Tories step up attack on ministers' `trips for totty'

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Robin Cook dismissed his diary secretary because she was hostile to the Government, Whitehall sources said last night. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says the Conservatives today will draw Tony Blair into the controversy over alleged ministerial excesses including "trips for totty".

Anne Bullen, the diary secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, was told to go because she was hostile to the Government, Whitehall sources said last night.

The Foreign Office denied as "rubbish" a report that consideration was given to replacing Ms Bullen with Mr Cook's lover, Gaynor Regan, but in a highly unusual move other Government sources accused the former civil servant of refusing to "forge a proper working relationship" with ministers and their aides.

"She was appointed by the previous Government and we were surprised she was still there after May. She made clear in her unwillingness to forge a proper working relations with the Government she was hostile towards the Government.

"She made no attempt to disguise her hostility and it was decided it would be better if she left," said a Whitehall source.

Michael Howard, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, last night was planning to exploit the controversy as part of a Tory attack on alleged ministerial excesses, including trips abroad for ministers' wives and partners, and the refurbishment of flats.

Ms Bullen could not be contacted last night but a former Tory minister said: "She was very tough, a top notch diary secretary not given to bowing to the special advisers, but she was not a card carrying member of the Tory party by any stretch of the imagination." She first took over the ministerial diary role under Douglas Hurd, and was replaced some months before her contract ended in November by a member of the Foreign Office staff.

Ms Regan is employed by Mr Cook to do constituency work and is paid on his MPs' office allowance through the Commons.

The Prime Minister will be drawn into the controversy today when he tells MPs in a Commons written answer to Eric Forth, the Tory MP, that the taxpayer met the bill for refurbishing the Blairs' family flat at 11 Downing Street.

Tony Blair swopped flats with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, when the Blairs discovered that the accommodation in No 10 was not big enough for their family.

The improvements are said to include a designer kitchen.Downing Street last night defended the refurbishment on the grounds that the former prime minister, John Major, had his flat in No 10 refurbished at the taxpayers' expense.

Downing Street denied, however, a second charge by the Tories that Mr Blair had had the tennis courts improved at Chequers, the Prime Minister's country residence. "It has not happened and there are no plans to do so," said a source.

Although the Tory ministers also spent taxpayers' money in similar ways when they were in office, the Tories stepped up the attack at the weekend with lists of costs, described as "the price of indulgence". They included the pounds 36,639.50 bill for sending ministers' spouses and partners abroad, which the Tories called "trips for totty".

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, came to Mr Blair's aid, attacking the Tory claims as "breathtaking hypocrisy". But Mr Ashdown said Mr Blair would be wise to be frugal to the point of meanness with ministerial expenditure.