Number 10 scrambles to patch up civil war in Whitehall

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Indy Politics

Downing Street yesterday attempted to salvage its own credibility from the carnage of the Whitehall civil war which led to the resignation of the spin doctor Jo Moore.

Number 10 sought to distance itself from both Stephen Byers, the embattled Secretary of State for Transport, and Martin Sixsmith, the civil servant who was his director of communications until he left his job along with Ms Moore 11 days ago. It denied allegations that it had issued misleading statements about an e-mail from Mr Sixsmith which provoked the crisis, saying that rail performance figures should not be released on the day of Princess Margaret's funeral.

One Whitehall source said last night: "No 10 is spitting blood. This is no longer a row about two spin doctors. The credibility of Downing Street and the Government as a whole is at stake." To make matters worse, the controversy coincided with Number 10 changing its story over Tony Blair's support for the bid by Lakshmi Mittal, a Labour Party donor, to buy a Romanian steel plant.

Last week, Tony Blair and his aides were cautiously optimistic that the double resignation of Ms Moore and Mr Sixsmith would draw a line under a long-running feud between the political adviser and the civil servants which has destabilised Mr Byers.

However, the story returned spectacularly to the front pages yesterday after Mr Sixsmith revealed his version of events to a Sunday newspaper, in which he insisted he had not resigned at all, as the Government announced on 15 February.

Downing Street spent the whole of yesterday in damage-limitation mode amid growing speculation at Westminster that Mr Byers's days in the Cabinet were numbered. In an unprecedented move, Sir Richard Mottram, the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, issued a public statement last night answering the 18,000-word dossier compiled by Mr Sixsmith, a former BBC foreign affairs correspondent.

Mr Blair's official spokesman Godric Smith insisted that Mr Byers still enjoyed the "full confidence" of the Prime Minister. But he failed to endorse Mr Byers's claim that he was not involved in the departure of Mr Sixsmith. "It was clear to everyone involved that the status quo was no longer an option and clearly there had to be change," said the spokesman.

Number 10 turned its guns on Mr Sixsmith as it issued its fullest account of the 48-hour Whitehall meltdown which led to the announcement that both Ms Moore and Mr Sixsmith had resigned.

While saying that he did not want to get into a "slanging match", Mr Smith, the Prime Minister's spokesman, suggested that Mr Sixsmith had allowed a "false impression to continue to develop" that Ms Moore had suggested the rail statistics should be issued on the day of Princess Margaret's funeral.

Mr Smith discussed the e-mail at the centre of the row with Mr Sixsmith at the daily 8.30am strategy meeting in Downing Street on 14 February. Mr Smith said the 20 people present had the impression that it was a case of "same offence, different e-mail". On 11 September, Ms Moore had suggested in a now-infamous e-mail that it was a good day to "bury" bad news.

This left Mr Smith to face journalists at their daily morning Lobby briefing with two conflicting accounts: Mr Sixsmith implied Ms Moore had proposed using the funeral to mask the rail statistics, while Mr Byers and Ms Moore insisted this was untrue. Mr Smith tried – but failed – to steer an awkward middle course between the conflicting accounts.

It was not until the following day, Mr Smith said, that Mr Sixsmith admitted to him that Ms Moore had not said anything about Princess Margaret's funeral. This crucial delay sucked Downing Street into the row and provoked the allegations that it misled journalists.

Yesterday Number 10 drew journalists' attention to an account in The Mirror suggesting that Mr Sixsmith was involved in a civil servants' plot to oust Ms Moore. The newspaper claimed Mr Sixsmith misled it by saying an inaccurate leaked version of the e-mail was accurate.

There was little sign last night that Sir Richard's statement would be the last word on the issue. Mr Blair's spokesman said the communications department at the DTLR had become "totally dysfunctional". The worry is that this disease appears to have spread to the Government as a whole in the past two weeks.

Although ministers hope that that the public will not follow the intricate detail of the "spin wars", Labour MPs are worried that the affair will damage the Government by adding to the impression that it has lost control of events. "If we are not careful, spin will be our epitaph," one MP said.