Labour councillors in Southampton were yesterday gagged by regional party bosses as pressure mounted on their leader to go in a row over the resignation of a senior colleague.

Cabinet members were instructed not to speak to the Daily Echo after a rift opened up between council leader Richard Williams and former Cabinet member Keith Morrell over the real reasons for his shock resignation two weeks into the job.

The gag followed yesterday’s Daily Echo report that former efficiency tsar Cllr Morrell, who the authority said had quit over ill health, was in fact fighting fit and he had actually resigned in a Cabinet split over future budget cuts.

However, the council leader told the paper he was sticking to his statement that Cllr Morrell told him he was leaving solely due to ill health.

Lifetime party man Cllr Morrell last night told the Echo he was “amazed” that Cllr Williams had denied he had tendered his resignation from the Cabinet because he could not politically defend large scale cuts and savings that will have to be made at the council due to a Government funding squeeze.

Cllr Morrell said he had agreed to say he had quit on “health grounds” but said he had to reveal the truth after colleagues, family and friends became worried.

“I was amazed when I saw him [Cllr Williams] repeat the story,” Cllr Morrell said. “As far as I’m concerned the record is straight.”

He added he had not been consulted on the resignation statement that was released.

Soon after the Echo hit the streets yesterday Labour’s regional party director Malcolm Power issued an order for councillors not to speak to the Echo about the “Morrell story”.

The Echo understands councillors were also threatened with having the whip – membership of the city’s Labour group – withdrawn if they talked.

When the Daily Echo attempted to contact Labour Cabinet members they failed to return calls with the exception of finance boss councillor Simon Letts.

Cllr Letts said: “I was as shocked as everybody to see the piece [in the Echo] but until I’ve spoken to the individuals I cannot comment. It’s possible that both of them are telling the truth.”

Cllr Williams last night said he had nothing to add to what he stated previously. He said: “As far as I’m aware no one has got anything to say because there is nothing else to add.”

Opposition Conservative leader Cllr Royston Smith said: “If Cllr Morrell is telling the truth, then Cllr Williams misled the communications department and allowed them to put out a message which is untrue which brings the council into disrepute and demonstrates he’s not fit for his office and should do the decent thing.

“Cllr Williams has been in the job two weeks and now the council is being run by the regional Labour party. It’s a disgrace.”

Cllr Morrell, who was made Cabinet member for efficiency and improvement, said he decided to resign after examining the dire state of the council’s finances and he could not defend a “dismantling of local government” to make savings.

The council faces an estimated £46m budget deficit over the next two years despite record cuts in the past two years.