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Gossip, rumour and the odd tear

The Diary was wiping away a tear at the shock resignation of Michael Bichard, head honcho at the Department for Education and Employment, only to be rudely interrupted by the telephone ringing off its hook with a whirl of speculation about the great man's departure.

Take your pick from a tombola full of rumours over the cause of the resignation: worries about the direction of government policy, frustration over the slow pace of civil service reforms, a "stab in the back" over who would run the merged Benefits Agency and employment services, the possible departure of close ally David Blunkett to the Home Office or - a bit of a New Age one - kidney problems which briefly put him in hospital last year causing a re-evaluation of life priorities. Whichever, or whatever we wish him well.

But the real frenzy is over who will replace Bichard when he leaves in May. David Normington, director-general of the DFEE's schools directorate, comes in as a front-runner but is hamstrung by the fact that he is an internal candidate. Historically, most permanent secretaries have been appointed from outside their departments.

The fact that there are no plans to advertise the post externally would seem to cast some doubt on the hopes of hot-shots outside Whitehall, like the impeccably-connected Bedfordshire County Council chief executive and ex-teacher David Bell. One name that does keep coming up is John Vereker, permanent secretary of the Department for International Development and an education mandarin between 1988 and 1993.

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