Leader tried to oust aide who warned of BBC inquiry

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Indy Politics

Iain Duncan Smith attempted earlier this year to oust a senior aide who sent an e-mail warning that the Tory leader could face a BBC investigation into his private office, The Independent has learnt.

Vanessa Gearson, the then head of the Tory leader's office, consulted lawyers, who said that such a move would constitute unfair dismissal. She was instead given a new title in a reorganisation of Conservative Central Office.

Ms Gearson, who is the party's prospective parliamentary candidate for Cheltenham, was made deputy director, organisation, and has responsibility for links between Mr Duncan Smith's office and that of Theresa May, the party chairman.

Ms Gearson was revealed this weekend as the author of an e-mail which warned that the BBC's Michael Crick could launch an investigation into the finances of the Conservative leader's private office. The e-mail was sent to Mark MacGregor, the then chief executive of the party, who was sacked by Mr Duncan Smith in February.

Mr MacGregor, a moderniser with close links to Michael Portillo, was furious when he was fired while on holiday in Paris and replaced by Barry Legg, a former Westminster councillor. His sacking triggered a fresh round of infighting between traditionalists and modernisers in the Tory party.

Ms Gearson has been loyal to the party leadership and refused to comment on her e-mail, despite claims by some party sources that she has been too close to the modernising camp. A former cabinet member on Barnet Council, she is seen by many as one of the party's most able women candidates and has impressed Mrs May over recent months in her new post.

Her e-mail ended up in the hands of Mr Crick, who had planned to run a report for BBC's Newsnight on the finances of Mr Duncan Smith's office. Following legal threats from Central Office, the report was not shown.

Mr Duncan Smith has threatened to sue any publication that prints details of allegations about his private office, and last night he again told Sky News that there was no truth in the claims.

Mr Duncan Smith has upset several members of the Shadow Cabinet with his decision to dismiss or move members of his staff since he took over as leader two years ago.

He angered many when he sacked David Davis as party chairman while he was on holiday last summer. Mr Davis was moved to the position of shadow Deputy Prime Minister.

Modernisers have either resigned or been dismissed, with Jenny Ungless, the leader's chief of staff, the first to go from Central Office, citing the "poisonous" atmosphere within the higher reaches of the party.

Dominic Cummings, the strategy director, resigned because he didn't feel that the party was doing enough to modernise. He caused disquiet within the leadership after an interview in The Independent in which he said that the only thing more unpopular than the euro was the Tories.

But it was Mr Duncan Smith's decision to sack Mr MacGregor that caused him the most headaches this year. Rick Nye, another well-respected policy director, and Stephen Gilbert, director of operations, decided to leave at the same time.

Mr Legg was appointed to a joint post of chief of staff and chief executive, but didn't set foot in Central Office because the party's board complained that it needed to ratify his appointment first. Party members were furious that Mr Gilbert had also apparently been forced out.

After complaints from the board that they had been sidelined and that the party's constitution had been breached, Mr Legg departed and Mr Gilbert was reappointed.

He is now Ms Gearson's boss as director of organisations and campaigns.