Politically incorrect - John Kampfner finds Blair at odds with civil servants

Downing Street will be glad to see the back of the present head of the civil service. But will his s

Office leaving parties show the British at their insincere best. So as Tony Blair hosted a farewell party for Sir Richard Wilson at the QEII Centre, Westminster, on 24 July, his guests - Whitehall's great and good - could have been forgiven a little smirk.

The Prime Minister is, as they say in mandarin-speak, not entirely displeased that his cabinet secretary is moving on. Blair and his army of political appointees in Downing Street have seen Wilson as a brake on reform.

"Let's put it this way, we're looking forward to the arrival of the new man," is one of the more charitable comments emanating from No 10. "Many of the things we've tried to do he's tried to undermine," is a slightly less benign interpretation.

The battle for Whitehall has been fought through the oleaginous figure of Wilson. The Blairites are frustrated with him because they are desperate to shake up the culture. Civil servants scorn him because they are desperate to preserve their integrity and neutrality.

For all his practised charm, he has incurred the wrath of many in No 10. Now that he's going, the gloves are off. "He just sat there with his creased-up face, taking notes, saying nothing," remarks one government adviser. "We never knew which side he was on."

And that's just the point. Some older mandarins close to Wilson are furious at the way Blairite apparatchiks sought to rewrite his job description. "These new Labour people are unschooled in the ways of government. They're careless of boundaries and proprieties," says one mandarin. "They have had to be instructed how to behave."

Two recent incidents have highlighted the antagonism, one small, one large. Wilson decreed that all advisers in Downing Street were required to take three or six months' "gardening leave" if they accepted a job outside. However, he has not placed himself under those same strictures as he moves to the post of Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge (like all Oxbridge colleges, it is at least partly dependent on government funds).

Far more serious has been bad blood over the handling of the Byers affair. People in No 10 admit that it was they who instructed Stephen Byers, then secretary of state at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, to keep his special adviser, Jo Moore, after she sent the infamous memo. But they have since laid most of the blame for the furore that followed at the door of Sir Richard Mottram, permanent secretary at the department.

The Prime Minister's Office assumed that Mottram would be sacked. Instead, to Downing Street's fury, Wilson simply swapped him for Rachel Lomax, the top mandarin at the Department for Work and Pensions.

Wilson's difficulties with the Blairite vanguard have earned him sympathy in much of Whitehall and Westminster. Tony Wright, the chair of the select committee on public administration, heaped praise on him on his last appearance before MPs, although he did describe him as a "transitional figure".

A minority in Downing Street is also prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. "There are some people here who belong to the magic wand brigade," says one insider. "They believe that if only we got outsiders into the top of the civil service, somehow all our delivery problems would be solved." Another says: "Richard was on a hiding to nothing. The PM asked him to 'sort' the civil service, but nobody knew what he meant." No matter how hard they try, Wilson's detractors cannot pinpoint a single big decision on Whitehall reform that he actually blocked. After last year's general election, he reluctantly went along with Blair's plans to centralise power in No 10. As the number of special advisers increased, he did not stand in their way. Nor did he object to the new structures and the proliferation of "units" monitoring delivery. The result has been a mess.

The problem, though, lay more in attitude. Wilson never kicked ass, and that's something the PM's people hope his successor, Sir Andrew Turnbull, will do. The straight-talking Turnbull - even before his formal takeover in September - has announced an overhaul of the centre of government. He is taking the Young Turks who run Blair's units under his wing, and will soon appoint a new chief executive to manage them day to day. He is tempted to look outside the civil service, but efforts to recruit from the private sector have proved less than successful.

Turnbull's planned reforms carry an implicit warning to Blair and the political people around him: the civil service will concentrate on delivering the reform agenda, but it mustn't be interfered with.

The first test will be during Turnbull's first weeks. Wilson tried to persuade Blair to introduce a bill in this autumn's Queen's Speech regulating the civil service. The PM and his aides are not enthusiastic, especially at the prospect of limits on the number of advisers. They nervously await Turnbull's first move.