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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
Anyone have a good word for Stephen Byers?
Transport Secretary Stephen Byers
At least there's room to spread out
Stephen Byers is the most unpopular politician in sight. No-one seems to have a good word to say for the man. But in a shock revelation, it turns out some people are admiring the way he has been doing his job.

It's official. Stephen Byers has become a joke.

On this week's episode of Radio 4's comedy I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, Graeme Garden announced the following late arrival to the Society Ball for MPs.

"Welcome please Mr and Mrs Bennett-is-Stephen-Byers-still-there? and their son Gordon."

For him to become the butt of a joke on the most unpolitical of comedy shows is something of an achievement. But as an opinion poll indicated this week, Stephen Byers is not a popular man.

I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, Radio 4
Having a ball
His popularity rating has even slumped below Mrs Thatcher's at her lowest ebb.

In a poll, his popularity was measured as minus 49%, a figure calculated by subtracting the number of people who think he is doing a bad job from those who think he's doing a good job.

It's no mystery how he has gained such notoriety. Some of his low points include:

  • The Jo Moore thing, when he backed his special advisor after she wrote an e-mail advising 11 September was a good day to bury bad news.

• Being ridiculed when he claimed to have secured an extra £2.2bn investment in the railways, only for the Treasury to deny it.

• Facing accusations of lying when he told Parliament his press chief Martin Sixsmith had resigned, when in fact he hadn't.

So, has anyone got a good word to say about Mr Byers?

  As it happens, yes. Just this week, the pressure group Transport 2000 - not usually a friend of anyone in government - published a story headlined "Byers is not such bad news".

Jo Moore
Spin cycle: Byers' former adviser Jo Moore
  It says: "Only a public transport system that works, real priority on the roads for pedestrians and cyclists and a grown-up approach to traffic and roads will actually address the transport problems we face. Mr Byers has done more on these than he is given credit for, but he will need to do more."

A spokesman added: "In a way, [the attacks on Byers] started off as politically motivated. Now it's almost become a way of life. Bash Byers is the order of the day. But in terms of his actual job record it so far hasn't been flawed in any major way. I think he really needs to be given credit for that."

Such words must sound like sweet birdsong to the transport secretary after the Limp Bizkit chorus of criticism he's had recently.

Transport 2000 is not alone. The people who run the country's numerous railway companies are also quietly happy with Mr Byers.


A spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) says journalists often expect the association to call for Mr Byers' scalp. They remain disappointed.

"A lot of people come to us asking if we want to criticise Byers. But the operators are behind Byers."

There are three things in particular the train companies are happy about.

They credit Mr Byers for having put Railtrack into administration, despite shareholders' recriminations. "It was inevitable - it was a decision that had to be made," says Atoc.

Richard Bowker
Stability pact: SRA boss Richard Bowker
Secondly they are very happy the transport secretary appointed Richard Bowker to run the Strategic Rail Authority. Bowker, a former head of Virgin Rail, has achieved a degree of admiration for setting as a major goal the achievement of stability in the often chaotic rail industry.

And thirdly, they are happy Mr Byers has on the whole kept out of things. "There's been very little interference which is pleasant for once," Atoc says.

Where it has been necessary for him to make decisions, Atoc again is supportive.

For instance, in setting performance targets for the reduction of trains going through red signals, Mr Byers decided firstly to tackle the severe cases which could have been dangerous, rather than set a target on all cases of passing signals.

This would have included those cases where a train passed a signal by a few yards which, although wrong, does not pose a direct threat since there is a 150-yard safety zone built in. 

Christian Wolmar, rail expert and commentator, does not doubt that Mr Byers has made several mistakes, but he says many in the rail industry believe his low standing is not based on his performance as a minister.

"The insiders think he's a fairly competent minister when on the whole there haven't been many competent ministers where transport is concerned."

See also:

21 May 02 | UK Politics
08 Nov 01 | UK Politics
21 May 02 | UK Politics
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