A senior civil service press officer to Stephen Byers was suspended on full pay yesterday as part of an investigation into the leaks which have destabilised his department.
Ian Jones, head of news at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR), became the third victim of the Whitehall war which has already led to the departure of Jo Moore, special adviser to Mr Byers, and Martin Sixsmith, who was Mr Jones's boss as director of communications.
The affair caused further embarrassment for the Government as Downing Street refused to deny a BBC report that Tony Blair, rather than Mr Byers, saved Ms Moore from the sack after she said 11 September would be a good day to bury bad news.
At the time, No 10 suggested that Mr Blair backed Mr Byers' view that Ms Moore should not lose her job for one mistake. The decision to forgive her provoked the crisis which has engulfed the department.
In a letter to Mr Blair, the Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith demanded a "clear and unequivocal answer" to the claim that the Prime Minister intervened to reprieve Ms Moore last year. Downing Street said last night that Ms Moore had been dealt with under the department's disciplinary procedure and Mr Blair had been content with the decision.
The suspension of Mr Jones caused further turmoil at the DTLR, where there was said to be "real anger" at the action taken against a popular member of staff. He will continue to receive his full salary and has not been disciplined, a move which suggests conclusive evidence against him has not been found. "They should put up or shut up," said one Whitehall source.
Investigators at the DTLR have been checking the e-mails sent and telephone calls made by press officers during the inquiry into newspaper articles about an e-mail from Mr Sixsmith purporting to tell Ms Moore the department should not bury rail performance statistics on the same day as Princess Margaret's funeral.
The DTLR said Mr Jones had been suspended "pending further inquiries" and that the decision had been taken by Sir Richard Mottram, the Permanent Secretary. In January, Mr Byers was forced to back down after he tried to block Mr Jones's appointment in order to give the job to Ann Wallis, a friend of Ms Moore.
Downing Street confirmed the Government would publish for consultation a Civil Service Bill to limit the powers of special advisers. But there was controversy over the role of Lord Birt, the former BBC director general, who is working on transport strategy at No 10.
Friends of Mr Jones said he was shocked by the decision to suspend him and that he intended to "fight all the way" any allegations made against him.
Theresa May, the shadow Transport Secretary, said: "This is another blow to the personal standing of Stephen Byers. It further undermines his credibility and shows he is unable to control the civil war that is going on in his department."Reuse content