Senior staff are sacked as new leader makes his mark

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard ordered a purge of senior staff at Conservative Central Office yesterday, showing his determination to make a fresh start without some of Iain Duncan Smith's key advisers.

Three leading players in the Tories' communications team lost their jobs and there was mounting speculation that Vanessa Gearson, a deputy director at Tory headquarters, would also depart.

Dubbed "the assassin in high heels", Ms Gearson refused to sign a statement backing Mr Duncan Smith's version of events during the controversy over whether he paid his wife too much from public funds when she worked as his secretary.

A leaked e-mail from Ms Gearson, referring to the payments, is at the heart of the inquiry being carried out by Sir Philip Mawer, the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.

Ms Gearson is expected to remain as prospective Tory candidate for Cheltenham, where she enjoys strong support amongst grassroots party members.

The three departures were Paul Baverstock, the director of strategic communications, who was recruited from Lord Bell's public relations firm; Nick Wood, the director of media and a former Westminster journalist and Nick Longworth, the party's head of broadcasting.

Their exit is expected to leave the Tories with a compensation bill running into six figures. Under Mr Duncan Smith, the party ran up £500,000 in pay-offs after a series of staff changes at Central Office.

Allies of Mr Howard were appalled by the infighting at party HQ under his predecessor.

No new appointments were announced yesterday, but Will Harris, head of marketing at O2, has been tipped for a key role in the new team.

There will also be a role for Bill Clare, a former civil servant who worked under Alastair Campbell at Downing Street. Although Mr Howard wanted to poach him for his staff, he is expected to remain working for Liam Fox, the party's co-chairman.

Mr Fox paid tribute to the three departing staff. He said: "Paul Baverstock has made a major impact over the last year developing our political and communications strategies; Nick Wood has given outstanding and devoted service to two leaders of the party over the last five years and Nick Longworth has played a leading role in improving our broadcasting operation."

In the Tories' first policy shift since Mr Duncan Smith was ousted two weeks ago, the leadership made clear that improving public services would take greater priority over tax cuts.

Although Mr Howard, as shadow Chancellor, had been cautious about pledging tax reductions, Mr Duncan Smith had talked up the issue shortly before losing his job.

Oliver Letwin, the new shadow Chancellor, said: "I cannot give any kind of guarantee of a particular tax cut at a particular time partly because we absolutely have to get structural reform of the public services first."

He added: "We want to get the better bang for the taxpayer's buck and make the money that people are paying work better. And then we want, as and when we can, to reduce the burden of tax over time."

Mr Letwin refused to give up his post at NM Rothschild, saying he would obey Commons rules to ensure no conflict of interest arose.

But the Labour MP Kevin Brennan said: "I would have thought that the potential for a conflict of interest here would have meant it would have been better for him to stand aside."

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