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Monday, 15 October, 2001, 17:41 GMT 18:41 UK
Byers let off the hook?
Transport secretary Stephen Byers
Transport secretary lives to fight another day
Nick Assinder

Stephen Byers must have known what sort of no-win job he was walking into when Tony Blair made him secretary of state for transport after the last election.

It is a portfolio that has defeated most of his predecessors from all sides of the House.

Hauling the country's crumbling transport infrastructure out of crisis has become one of the most unenviable jobs in the cabinet - and the man responsible is always going to be vilified by voters and competing pressure groups.

But Mr Byers hardly got a grip on his department before, just four months in post, he found himself fighting for his life at the despatch box.

Shadow transport minister Eric Pickles
Pickles missed his target
Luckily for him it was only against shadow transport minister Eric Pickles who could not even remember that it was Dr Beeching, not Dr Beecham - presumably with the help of his powders - who "destroyed" the railways.

Mr Pickles' performance was so poor it saw many MPs cruelly claiming that the Tories had finally found somebody as stumbling, incoherent and unfocussed as deputy prime minister John Prescott.

Back foot

That may be unfair on both Mr Prescott and Mr Pickles, but it made a point. And Mr Byers was clearly delighted at the shadow minister's failure to chop his legs off.

Even a more effective intervention by failed Tory leadership candidate and recognised heavyweight Ken Clarke could not undo the lack of damage done by Mr Pickles.

Still, Mr Byers was clearly on the back foot

His handling of the Railtrack collapse has backfired on him with allegations it is renationalisation through the back door, that shareholders have been deceived and that investors will never again trust the government - potentially undermining Tony Blair's famous desire to attract private cash into the public sector.

Whitehall spin doctor Jo Moore
Moore under threat
But, even worse for a government obsessed with presentation, the whole announcement was overshadowed by the row over Mr Byers' spin doctor Jo Moore and his refusal to sack her.

The prime minister - always careful not to get too close to this sort of affair - has discreetly distanced himself from his friend.

The decision on Ms Moore's future is a matter for Mr Byers, Downing Street insists.

In other words, the only person whose judgement is in question is the transport secretary's.

Odds on lasting

Everyone agrees Ms Moore's email suggesting the twin towers atrocity offered a good cover to "bury" unpopular government announcements was offensive, inept and unforgivable - it's just not a sacking offence.

Tory backbenchers hammered home their advantage on this issue during the Commons debate, and Labour MPs were notably unsupportive when Mr Byers ducked the question.

But, once again, the opposition benches failed to draw blood, even though they were being offered an apparently unprotected throat.

It eventually took backbencher John Redwood to demand Mr Byers' resignation but, by then it was far too late and the minister confidently insisted he had done nothing the require such a move.

So Mr Byers lived to fight another day.

The odds on either him or his spin doctor lasting in the long term, however, is another matter.

See also:

15 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Byers faces resignation demand
09 Oct 01 | UK Politics
The nature of the beast
12 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Profile: Stephen Byers
20 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Byers facing Rover flak
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