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'What a week... first it was Ginger Spice, then Gazza... and now me'

THE Sun's editor, Stuart Higgins, parted company with the newspaper yesterday amid debate about whether he jumped or was pushed.

News International, owner of the Sun, said in a statement that Mr Higgins had been planning to resign for some months, yet reporters on the tabloid saw him in tears when he announced what he described as his "unexpected" departure.

Flanked by his deputies Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade, Mr Higgins, 42, told journalists that he had given a lot of leaving speeches in recent months, but had never expected to be giving his own. "What a week," he told staff. "First Geri, then Gazza and now me."|

Mr Higgins, who has been editor for five years, is to be replaced by David Yelland, currently deputy editor of the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post. Mr Yelland, 35, is a former City reporter on the Sun who became acquainted with Rupert Murdoch by interviewing him each year when News Corporation's results were published. He went to New York in 1993.

He also caught the media mogul's eye when he was acting editor at the New York Post on the night that Diana, Princess of Wales died. Mr Murdoch and he spent the night together on the newsroom floor making the paper up.

Friends say he is the most unlikely Sun editor, describing him as quiet and self-effacing. In contrast Mr Higgins, who replaced the equally flamboyant Kelvin MacKenzie, was known for a party piece that involved getting down on all fours and biting people's ankles.

Mr Higgins was dubbed "Higgy the human sponge" by Mr MacKenzie during his reign for his ability to soak up abuse. Mr MacKenzie even went so far as to put a photograph of Mr Higgins, then a relatively junior reporter, in the newspaper alongside his direct line phone number.

Readers were invited to ring and give him abuse and he received more than 1,000 calls.

Mr Higgins was renowned in Fleet Street for the strength of his royal contacts. During the acrimonious war of the press conducted by the Prince and Princess of Wales, Mr Higgins was widely believed to have a direct line to the Charles camp.

However, under Mr Higgins the Sun lacked the sure-footed populism that marked its heyday in the Eighties. It was forced by its owner to align with Tony Blair at the last election and has recently started to take tentative moves up-market.

It has been experimenting with new photographic styles for its topless page-three models and increasingly drops them completely. Internally there has been a debate raging about whether to end the page-three pictures permanently.

Yesterday's edition was evidence of the paper's sometimes uncertain approach. It is rumoured to have paid pounds 130,000 to buy Paul Gascoigne's story after he was left out of the England squad and so needed to milk him as much as it could. Yesterday that meant draping him in an England flag, a Sun plastic hat and reproducing some doggerel.

There has been speculation that his fast-rising deputy, Rebekah Wade, was being groomed for Mr Higgins' job.

Piers Morgan, editor of the Mirror, paid tribute yesterday: "In my opinion Stuart has been one of the most brilliant tabloid journalists of his generation. I am very surprised he has resigned. I intend to do everything in my power to give his successor a good kicking."

News International maintains that Mr Higgins will be promoted to another position within the company. Rupert Murdoch paid fulsome tribute to him yesterday: "Stuart has done a terrific job throughout his years at The Sun. He is a brilliant newspaperman with a great future and we are sorry he has reached this decision."

In his official statement Mr Higgins said: "It's been incredibly hard work and I have had a wonderful time, but I am certain this is the right time in my life to make a change."

Packer's target, page 17