Least-wanted job in spin-land will not be for faint-hearted

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Indy Politics

When one senior civil service post is advertised next month there may be no flood of applications even though it carries a salary of about £100,000, a pension and access to the heart of government, .

The post of director of communications at the Department of Transport is certainly not for the faint-hearted after the sudden departure of Martin Sixsmith last week.

As well as coping with daily stories on one of the hottest political issues, the successful applicant will have the added responsibility of helping Tony Blair kill the culture of "spin" that has torn the department apart in recent days. No wonder that one Whitehall insider confided yesterday that the vacant post at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions was "the worst job in the Civil Service right now".

The post itself has undoubtedly been dogged by controversy since Alun Evans quit last summer amid accusations that he had clashed with Jo Moore, Mr Byers' former special adviser. Mr Evans was incensed when Ms Moore told one of his junior press officers to spin a story to the press that aimed to damage the credibility of London's transport commissioner, Bob Kiley. Mr Sixsmith, a former BBC correspondent, was then hired as the perfect man to bring more of a media-savvy approach to the department.

Now that Mr Sixsmith has himself been forced out, Downing Street will be hoping that his replacement attracts as little attention as possible.

Mr Byers has indicated to friends that there are still failures within his press office when it comes to responding quickly to breaking stories and will want someone tough in charge. High-profile journalists and even former heads of trade union press departments may still feel that they can turn the department around. Despite the clear pitfalls, anyone succeeding would definitely receive a passport to greater things in government.

Yet an intimate knowledge of newspaper and broadcasters' deadlines and needs may not be seen as the highest priority in a department that is desperately keen to be thought of once more as a "straight dealer". Civil servants are the most likely to clinch it.

Iain Hepplewhite, director of news at the Department of Trade and Industry, is tipped by some for the post. A former press officer for the Parliamentary Labour Party and head of press at the Department of Culture Media and Sport, he has also worked closely with Mr Byers at the DTI.

Derek Plews, director of news at the Ministry of Defence, is well regarded and knows the department from his time as press secretary to John Prescott in the previous parliament. Other Whitehall high-flyers are Julia Simpson, deputy director of communications and head of news at the Home Office, and Sian Jarvis, director of communications at the Department of Health.