Byers' former press chief accuses him of spin cover-up

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Indy Politics

The Transport Secretary Stephen Byers is today at the centre of renewed controversy over the departure of two senior officials.

A charge of "covering-up" is levelled at Mr Byers by one of those officials, the department's former head of press, Martin Sixsmith. Officially, Mr Sixsmith resigned just over a week ago at the same time as Mr Byers's special adviser, Jo Moore. Now Mr Sixsmith says that he never volunteered to resign, and that he was "amazed to hear" he had been "unilaterally resigned" when Mr Byers announced publicly that Mr Sixsmith was going.

In response to Mr Sixsmith's allegations, the department issued a statement last night saying that Mr Sixsmith agreed with the department's permanent secretary, Sir Richard Mottram, to resign from his post as director of communications on 15 February. "This was on the basis that Jo Moore also resigned, and the terms of his resignation were agreed with him."

According to today's Sunday Times, Mr Sixsmith has compiled an 18,000-word dossier on the episode, recording events following the leaking of an email in which Mr Sixsmith warned Ms Moore against making a press announcement on the day of Princess Margaret's funeral. It was Ms Moore who wrote an email on 11 September saying it was a good day to bury bad news.

In the furore that followed the leaking of Mr Sixsmith's email, Mr Byers announced that both he and Ms Moore had resigned. In an interview with The Sunday Times Mr Sixsmith says that was not true. At the time of the announcement he had not resigned.

He is reported as saying: "Ten days ago everyone who watched television news or listened to the radio went to bed thinking Martin Sixsmith had resigned and – what is more – was being tarred with the same brush as Jo Moore. Very senior people ... found themselves being misled into providing on-the-record reaction to this false story. Why did this all happen? Because Stephen Byers had said so.

"Before Byers's announcement, the permanent secretary assured me they accepted there was no suspicion of misconduct against me. I was therefore amazed to hear they had unilaterally resigned me."

Mr Sixsmith's notes claim he had been given assurances by Sir Richard that he would not be forced to quit. But Alastair Campbell, the Government's director of communications and strategy, had told him that Mr Byers had promised Ms Moore that if she went then so would he.

Last night the Prime Minister's official spokesman said Tony Blair still had confidence in Mr Byers. But Downing Street was reluctant to become further embroiled in the saga, saying it was a departmental matter.

Though Ms Moore clung on to her job after 11 September, her every move was scrutinised by the press. Mr Sixsmith soon clashed with her and Mr Byers over what he saw as their attempt to block the appointment of a career civil servant as his deputy to make way for a friend of Ms Moore.

In an atmosphere of briefing and counter-briefing within the department, Mr Sixsmith had sent an email to Ms Moore reading: "You spoke about possibly making this announcement on Friday. We should not do it on Friday as that is the day on which Princess Margaret is buried. There are too many connotations to the word 'buried' for us to do anything on that day."

An incorrect version of that message, which made it look as if Mr Sixsmith had been forced to issue Ms Moore with a rebuke for again trying to hide bad news, was leaked to the press.