Byers made to backtrack over job for spin doctor's friend

Click to follow
Indy Politics

Tony Blair forced Stephen Byers into a humiliating climbdown yesterday over his plan to fix a top Whitehall job for a friend of his disgraced spin doctor Jo Moore.

An angry Prime Minister ordered the beleaguered Secretary of State for Transport to stop interfering with independent recruitment processes and allow the appointment of a career civil servant to the post of head of news.

Number 10 told Mr Byers to drop his threat to create a special unit under his direct control in the department's public relations division unless Ms Moore's friend got the post.

The Transport Secretary was also forced to scrap his plan to cut £250,000 from the budget of the public relations department unless he got his way. Some sources argued that Mr Byers knew he would have to retreat on the issue after news of his intervention was reported yesterday, and before he took a call from Downing Street.

Yesterday's U-turn casts yet another cloud over the career of Mr Byers, who came under fire for protecting Ms Moore after her infamous 11 September e-mail calling on department press officers to take the opportunity to "bury" bad news.

Mr Byers and his spin doctor had been seeking the appointment of Ann Wallis, who had worked with Ms Moore at a lobbying company, rather than Ian Jones, a senior manager working in the directorate.

For seven weeks Mr Byers fought to stop Mr Jones getting the job as second in command in the directorate, although his appointment had been endorsed by an independent Whitehall panel.

Colleagues of Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC television journalist and now head of the PR division, said he was "delighted" with the outcome. Mr Sixsmith was involved last Tuesday in a "blazing row" with the Transport Secretary over his intervention.

Jonathan Baume, the general secretary of the First Division Association, the senior civil servants' union, said he was pleased that the independent appointments process had been respected, and was surprised that the dispute had been allowed to drag on. "This was clearly an attempt at political interference in what was otherwise an appointment based on fair and open competition. I hope clear lessons have been learnt and that there will be no further attempts at manipulating the appointments process."

The ministry said Mr Jones had been given the job "with immediate effect" and that the appointment was the result of an "open civil service competition". Mr Jones, 39, who is married with two children, has worked in the directorate since 1999 and was previously involved in media relations at the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and 10 Downing Street.

After the announcement, the Tory transport spokesman, Eric Pickles, said: "This is a humiliating climbdown by Stephen Byers but then he is becoming used to ritual humiliation at least once a week. He looks like a complete clown."