Cameron told to rein in special advisers over negative briefings

 

David Cameron has been officially reprimanded by the head of the civil service over the "unacceptable" behaviour of some of his special advisers.

Sir Gus O'Donnell wrote a strongly worded letter to the Prime Minister urging him to restrain Government aides accused of "smearing" the head of the Electoral Commission. He was said to have been furious after reading a newspaper report describing Jenny Watson, a former Audit Commission board member, as "incompetent"

The report, citing a Whitehall source, claimed Ms Watson was "milking the taxpayer" and predicted she would be sacked by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles in "a bonfire of the quangocrats".

Labour last night called for an inquiry to identify those responsible who, they said, should be sacked. The disclosure of the letter is damaging to Mr Cameron who had promised to draw a line under the anonymous – and often poisonous – briefings by Labour advisers during the previous government.

Gordon Brown's press spokesman Damian McBride was forced to resign after he was exposed plotting to smear senior Tories. Labour special adviser, Jo Moore, left Government after she sent an email suggesting that 11 September 2001 was a good day to "bury" bad news.

When the Conservatives came into power all their new special advisers – political aides to ministers – were warned by that if they leaked information to the press they would be fired.

But that diktat appears not to have extended to the Tories' enemies – much to the annoyance of the Cabinet Secretary. The letter from the Cabinet Secretary to the Prime Minister, which was leaked to the magazine PRWeek, is understood to have read: "You will have been aware of briefings to the media regarding Jenny Watson. This behaviour is unacceptable. I trust you will agree with me and take necessary action to make sure that people understand this will not be tolerated."

In response to a Freedom of Information request by PRWeek, the Cabinet Office confirmed that Sir Gus had written to the Prime Minister in late 2010 to discuss "the role, status or conduct of government special advisers". However, an official declined to provide the correspondence in question.

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said: "We never comment on any advice the Cabinet Secretary might or might not have provided to the Prime Minister."

But a Downing Street insider who witnessed the episode unfolding told the magazine of mounting concern in Whitehall about the activities of some Tory special advisers. The source said: "The quotes about Jenny Watson were the final straw. [Sir] Gus was so concerned that he raised it with the PM a few days later, saying this is unacceptable behaviour and please reign in your spads [special advisers]."

Labour's Caroline Flint, shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, said: "The head of the Civil Service would not have written to the Prime Minister without good cause. David Cameron and Eric Pickles must now come clean about whether or not advisers were responsible for these disgraceful negative briefings. If they were, then they should be sacked.

"Eric Pickles talks a lot about transparency, yet so far he has done all he can to avoid answering questions about the alleged conduct of his aides."

The quotes first appeared in The Times in September 2010. The newspaper reported that Mr Pickles was embarking on "a bonfire of the quangocrats", with Ms Watson top of his hit list. A Whitehall source told the paper: "She was begging Mr Pickles to stay on but we are not having someone who built their career on incompetence continuing to milk the taxpayer.

"She is not fit for the role. The Audit Commission has lost its way and the last thing we need is someone like her on board. She has no previous experience outside the public sector. We have had a bonfire of the quangos; now we are having a bonfire of the quangocrats."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary teaching roles in Ipswich

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education re...

Science teachers needed in Norwich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teachers requ...

Semi Senior Accountant - Music

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

English teachers required in Lowestoft

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified English tea...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits