A fierce row at the Government's Equality and Human Rights Commission escalated yesterday as it emerged that half of the commissioners who until recently sat on the quango's board are expected to have resigned by the end of this week.
Two resigned in April, three have quit in the past four days, and two others are expected to follow by Friday. The latest resignations come in protest at the reappointment of the Commission's chairman, Trevor Phillips.
One inside source compared the exodus to a murder mystery: "It is like an Agatha Christie novel, where you think someone is sitting in the corner library reading quietly and then you suddenly find they have gone."
The Commission's depleted board will meet today to discuss what is expected to be a damning report into the handling of its finances. The sense of crisis will be heightened by the batch of resignations.
Mr Phillips and his deputy, Margaret Prosser, were reappointed for a second term by the Equality minister, Harriet Harman. At the same time, Ms Harman announced that the size of the 16-member board, made up of the chairman, his deputy, and 14 commissioners, was to be cut back, and that all the commissioners would have to reapply for their jobs.
Since the announcement, Professor Francesca Klug, a human rights academic, Jane Campbell, a health and social care specialist, and the veteran disability campaigner Sir Bert Massie have resigned. Two more resignations are expected by Friday.
In his resignation letter, Sir Bert compared Mr Phillips to Lord Cardigan, who led the Light Brigade to disaster in the Crimean War. He wrote: "It is rather as though at Balaclava Lord Cardigan had been reappointed and the remnants of the Light Brigade invited to reapply for their posts."
Sir Bert's term of office was due to end in September anyway, but a senior figure at the Equality Commission admitted yesterday that the loss of the other two was a major blow. "There have been some disagreements around the table about the Commission's direction of travel," he said. "You had 16 people with strong political views about what we should be doing. Trying to keep a group of that size together was difficult.
"But the actual process itself hasn't been helpful. When you had two members of the board reappointed, and the others told to reapply for their jobs, you can understand that they weren't very happy."
Mr Phillips has attracted criticism for his management style and his decision to combine private consultancy work with his £110,000-a-year post as a three-day-a-week chairman, which he has held since 2006.
Professor Klug, who supervised the production of a report on human rights which the Commission published last month, referred to "problems of leadership" in her resignation letter.
A report by the National Audit Office, published today, is expected to be particularly critical of the way some staff at the former Commission for Racial Equalities were paid redundancy when the CRE was subsumed in the new Commission, and then rehired by the successor body.