Row erupts over departure of Tory aide: Government whips say MP's 'resignation' was a sacking. Nicholas Timmins reports

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AN EXTRAORDINARY row erupted yesterday over the departure as a ministerial aide of Tim Devlin, the Tory MP for Stockton South - with Mr Devlin insisting he had resigned over defence cuts as government whips insisted that he had been sacked.

With rare ferocity, Government sources went out of their way to attack Mr Devlin, 35, for his 'poor voting record and general ineffectiveness', saying he had been removed as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, after missing four votes recently, including two payroll votes early on Thursday morning which Cabinet members had attended.

Mr Devlin said he was 'shocked' at the whips' charges as the two sides produced incompatible versions of events.

The one point they agreed on was that the Stockton MP's departure had nothing to do with him being due for questioning by the Police Complaints Authority about a drugs case involving Brian Charrington, a garage owner charged with importing pounds 150m of cocaine. Mr Devlin, despite being the Attorney-General's PPS, had lobbied ministers for his release on the ground that Mr Charrington was a police informant. The charges were dropped. Government sources said Mr Devlin's removal was connected 'solely with party discipline'. The whips' unprecedented attack on Mr Devlin came after he said on Radio Cleveland yesterday morning that he had resigned over cuts that will close the Eaglescliffe Royal Navy stores depot in his constituency with the loss of 380 jobs.

The whips instantly responded by saying he had been summoned to see Greg Knight, the deputy chief whip, at 9pm on Thursday night and dismissed.

The centre-left, independent- minded, pro-European MP said that was a lie. He had had several meetings with whips, telling them he wanted to resign and they had been 'trying all week to stop me'.

He had seen the Attorney General on Thursday night and told him he wanted to go. 'He said I had done a good job for him, that he didn't want me to resign and I should go and see the deputy chief whip. The deputy chief whip told me I should say I was resigning for personal reasons.' He had not agreed to that, wanting to be free to fight for his constituents' interests, but he had not 'made a fuss', telling only local media of his decision.

He was now 'staggered' at the whips' reaction. The whips' public assault - turning a minor news item into a major one - was all the more baffling when Mr Devlin's removal for whatever reason could have been included unnoticed in next week's anticipated Cabinet reshuffle. Sources said their reaction had come only after Mr Devlin had gone public. John Major, questioned in Brussels, said the chief whip had dealt with the matter properly.

Support for Mr Devlin's version came from his consituency chairwoman, Marjorie Simpson, who said the local party was '100 per cent behind him'. Mr Devlin had told her 'more than a week ago' that he intended to resign as a PPS, she said.

Mr Devlin, whose seat is marginal with a 3,369 majority, had made his unhappiness at the defence cuts in his constituency known to journalists earlier in the week, and Michael Bates, Conservative MP for nearby Langbaurgh, said he knew Mr Devlin had fought a vigorous campaign for the depot. 'I know he was deeply disappointed and very angry when he found out yesterday that his campaign had failed.'

Baroness Blatch, the Minister of State for Education, visiting Mr Devlin's constituency, also said yesterday that it would be 'entirely consistent' for him to resign from the unpaid post.