Surprise choice emerges to head Civil Service

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A surprise front-runner has emerged to become head of the Civil Service and the Cabinet Secretary when Sir Richard Wilson retires this summer.

Sir Andrew Turnbull, the permanent secretary at the Treasury, is believed to be in line for the post immortalised by the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey Appleby in BBC's Yes, Prime Minister.

Tony Blair, who is expected to announce his decision next week, is believed to have rejected Sir Richard's preferred candidate, Sir David Omand, who left his post at the Home Office in 2000 on health grounds but has now recovered from lymphoma.

Sir Andrew, 57, would be seen in Whitehall as a stop-gap candidate because civil servants have to retire when they reach the age of 60. He would be regarded as a "safe and solid" choice. His 32-year career has been spent mainly at the Treasury but has included two spells at Downing Street and as head of the Department of the Environment.

The Prime Minister would want to clear the appointment of Sir Andrew with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown. But that is unlikely to be a problem because there is no shortage of candidates to succeed him as the Treasury's top mandarin. They include Gus O'Donnell, its head of macroeconomic policy, who rebuffed an attempt by Mr Blair to poach him from the Treasury.

Sir Richard earns £175,000 a year but under a new pay structure his successor could earn up to £245,000. Mr Blair has decided to rewrite the job description to emphasise the need for the Civil Service to deliver the Government's objectives, reflecting his frustration with Whitehall over his drive to reform public services.

The Prime Minister has abandoned the idea of appointing an outsider from the private sector with a brief to shake up Whitehall.

The demanding role includes acting as one the Prime Minister's closest advisers, and smoothing over differences between government departments and ministers as well as being the manager of some 500,000 civil servants.