Alleged plot to smear Army chief's daughter may have sparked Joyce resignation

Labour figures planned to "smear" the daughter of the new head of the Army because of her links to David Cameron, it was claimed last night.

The alleged plot contributed to the resignation of the ministerial aide Eric Joyce last week, The Mail on Sunday reported.

Joanna Richards, the 25-year-old daughter of Sir David Richards, began working as the Tory leader's diary secretary this summer. Mr Joyce was said to be "disturbed" to learn Labour colleagues discussing the appointment of Miss Richards to Mr Cameron's team in July.

"He heard talk of Richards' daughter working for the Tories and did not like it," a source told the newspaper.

The claims follow reports of an alleged ministerial plot to smear General Sir Richard Dannatt, Sir David's predecessor. Defence minister Kevan Jones yesterday described both allegations has "nonsense". Miss Richards, known as Jo, was previously an intern in William Hague's office and a research assistant to Tory MP Tobias Ellwood. She could not be contacted for comment last night.

Mr Joyce resigned as parliamentary private secretary to the Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth on Thursday on the eve of Gordon Brown's major speech on Afghanistan. His decision had been expected by his colleagues at the Ministry of Defence; they just didn't know exactly when it would happen. Ever since he broke ranks to criticise the department's attempts to fight compensation claims made by wounded troops as "bonkers" – while still an aide to Mr Ainsworth – earlier this year, his days had been numbered. In fact, Mr Joyce's fate was decided during a dressing-down by Mr Ainsworth following the compensation outburst, when it was decided that he should step down "quietly" during the summer.

His departure was anything but and the Falkirk MP may also have plunged his leader into a fresh debate about his capacity to lead the country on a day-to-day basis, let alone managing a military campaign thousands of miles away.

It is becoming a familiar late-summer ritual. Almost exactly a year ago, amid the febrile heat of dismal opinion poll ratings and rank-and-file unrest, Mr Brown faced the real prospect of a leadership challenge. Mr Joyce stood firm, but fellow veterans of Hazel Blears's 2007 deputy leadership campaign, including Siobhain McDonagh and David Cairns, quit the Government and called for change, aided by a cabinet mutiny. The departure of an aide like Joyce should be no more than an irritant, but the Brown camp have seen this before.

The Brown camp is wary, and angry; there is already talk about Mr Ainsworth being reprimanded over his handling of the Joyce difficulty. Senior ministers have already been sounded out about holding the line. It is classic crisis management, although, for the moment, there is no concrete sign of a catastrophe. The critics of last September and earlier this year are silent on Mr Brown's ability to lead Labour to election victory. One prime mover in both stalled rebellions last night said his colleagues were "resigned to defeat".

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