A formal investigation into the conduct of two of Michael Gove’s special advisers was demanded today following anonymous smears of the Education Secretary's opponents on the social networking site Twitter.
Stephen Twigg, Labour’s education spokesman, wants Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Haywood to investigate whether senior special advisers Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete flouted their code of conduct in postings on the Twitter feed @toryeducation and in briefing other websites.
Derogatory comments about critics of government policies and journalists have been posted on the feed and The Spectator website in recent months.
After accusing the Department for Education of adopting an “Upstairs, Downstairs” mentality between ministers and civil servants, former Children’s Minister Tim Loughton was singled out for attack on The Spectator website as “a lazy incompetent narcissist” by someone claiming to be a senior DfE source.
Journalist Chris Cook, from the Financial Times, was accused of being a “stalker” and a Walter Mitty-type character on @toryeducation after a series of articles claiming Mr Gove and his advisers were using private email addresses to conduct government business in an attempt to circumvent Freedom of Information requests. The Observer political editor Toby Helm was accused of being a “labour stooge” after an article critical of the school sports legacy following last year’s Olympics.
In a letter to Sir Jeremy, Mr Twigg asks him to investigate the source of the smears, adding: “I would also ask you to investigate if official department resources have been used, such as official computers, blackberries or phones, to conduct a smear campaign against those who question or criticise the Education Secretary. There are serious allegations the code (for special advisers) may have been breached. You will be aware that ministers have responsibility for the actions of their special advisers.”
In The Observer today, it was claimed Mr Cummings and Mr de Zoete had been running a feed to the site and that they have previously been asked by Henry Macrory, the Conservative head of press, to tone down the comments.
Asked by The Observer whether they were responsible for the tweets, Mr de Zoete said he was not @toryeducation and Mr Cummings responded with emails ridiculing the story.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “If we were to receive any evidence that anyone connected with the Department for Education had broken the Special Advisers Code or the Civil Service Code, then we would take appropriate steps. So far no such evidence has been provided.”
‘Chillax, John!’ - the non-denial denial
In an email seen by The Independent to the Observer editor, John Mulholland responding to questions about his links with the Twitter feed @toryeducation, Dominic Cummings, special adviser to Michael Gove, writes: “I’m not wasting time on the tantrums of Toby Helm and Chris Cook over anonymous Twitter accounts.
"Am I supposed to take seriously anonymous accusations about anonymous Twitter accounts ridiculing journalists with too much time on their hands? I suggest your advice to both of them is: take a Twitter detox because it’s melting your brains, focus on what’s important, stop behaving like eight-year-olds.”
In a response, Mr Mulholland replies; “I noted how your first email did not deny contributing to @educationnews.” [He later makes it clear he should have written @toryeducation]
In his final email, Mr Cummings - who picks him up over his reference to @educationnews – says: “Once you’ve chillaxed, I would be happy to chat some time about education policy.”