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Friday, 15 February, 2002, 18:30 GMT
Profile: Stephen Byers
Stephen Byers
By BBC News Online's Ben Davies

There was almost something seasonal about the way Stephen Byers faced calls for his resignation.

In the saga that became known as "spingate" saw Prime Minister Tony Blair was forced, yet again, to defend his under-fire transport secretary.

It came about because Mr Byers said the former head of communications in his transport department (DTLR) Martin Sixsmith quit his job and now we know that was not the case.

Mr Sixsmith's 'resignation' came at the same time as the departure of spin doctor Jo Moore.

They had what could politely be called a bit of a clash of personalities.

Mr Byers had been under almost relentless attack since Ms Moore, whose job was to keep him out of trouble, was revealed to have sent an e-mail on 11 September suggesting events in America made it a good day to "bury" bad news.

Since then almost every major announcement related to transport or local government has been subject to intense scrutiny to see what the spin background to it might be.

Once he had decided to stand by Ms Moore, he had lined himself up against vast swathes of media and political opinion, including a number within his own party.

Within a few weeks Mr Byers was accused of pushing a senior civil servant out of his job for refusing to participate in a Ms Moore-devised smear campaign.

And then a dynamic looking decision to effectively close Railtrack could have put him back on track - but instead he was accused of misleading MPs and facing the wrath of both Railtrack bosses and shareholders.

Troublesome times

One of the rapidly promoted Blairite ministers, Mr Byers had something of a knack for landing himself in trouble in the press.

Remember the seafood dinner in which he briefed lobby hacks that Labour would break all links with the unions?

Rover protests
Byers was criticised over his handling of the Rover debacle
Mr Byers took a while to get a seat at Westminster, largely because he lacked trade union sponsorship which is something of a must in the north east of England, but once he was there it was, by the standards of British politics, a rapid rise.

In less than seven years he was in the cabinet, prompting some speculation that he was Blair's natural successor - along with Chancellor Gordon Brown, of course.

All of that was before the Rover debacle which left workers at Longbridge fearing for their jobs after BMW made its shock decision to sell the British car manufacturer.

The trade secretary was inevitably a focus for angry, betrayed workers and there was suspicion as to when Mr Byers actually knew of the decision.

Blair-Brown, Byers-Milburn

Until then one of the favourite comparisons drawn by senior observers in the Westminster village was between Mr Byers and Health Secretary Alan Milburn, and Mr Blair and Mr Brown.

Mr Byers and Mr Milburn were elected in the same year (1992), were on the same wing of the party, were from the north east, shared an office and were great mates.

Stephen Byers
The 'faceless' minister came under pressure to ditch the moustache

It is a situation that has uncanny similarities with the chancellor and the prime minister when they were first elected.

The Downing Street neighbours continue to work closely together but, by all reports, they are a great deal less matey following a spat about who should run for the party leadership in 1994.

Mr Byers beat Mr Milburn into the cabinet, and then went on to be trade secretary within six months.

He was then shunted sideways to become transport secretary in the post-election victory reshuffle.

In April 2000 he was described as "faceless" in terms of his public profile - and perhaps after this week he wishes he still was.

There had long been suggestions that his job might be on the line, but he overcame a few tests of character previously when the media has been howling at his door.

Most memorable was when he was tripped up on BBC Radio Five Live over his ignorance of the eight-times-table, while an education minister.

In his role as "outrider for the Blair project" he asserted that "the reality is that redistribution of wealth is now less important than the creation of wealth".

Personal sacrifice

His support for the cause of New Labour is so great that he even made the personal sacrifice of losing his moustache - part of a wider cull of facial hair on the party's frontbench.

Another role that he has taken in the past is to voice support for the single currency.

Along with his boss, he has been one of the few Labour ministers prepared to speak out in favour of the euro.

Mr Byers was born in Wolverhampton and won a place at Chester City grammar, leaving early to take his A-levels at a local college because he hated the school.

He went on to gain a law degree at Liverpool.

His background is as a law lecturer and as a councillor in Newcastle.

His father was a RAF technician and his partner, Jan, is a lawyer.

See also:

12 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Beleagured Byers challenges BMW
01 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Byers: Think again, Corus
13 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Byers 'not guilty' over Rover
24 Dec 98 | UK Politics
Shooting star in Blair's Cabinet
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