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Tuesday, 26 February, 2002, 18:35 GMT
Byers looks to the future
Transport secretary Stephen Byers
Byers wants to draw a line under affair
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By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent
He may be under intense pressure to quit, but Stephen Byers did not look like a man ready to fall on his sword just yet.

He came to the Commons amid mounting claims that his future was hanging by a thread - and he was determined to prove everybody wrong.

He effectively admitted not telling the truth over his involvement in civil servant Martin Sixmith's resignation.

Martin Sixsmith
Sixsmith came in for criticism from Byers
And he confirmed he had argued that Mr Sixmith should not be given another job anywhere in Whitehall.

But time and again he dismissed the furore surrounding the episode as a "media story" and insisted he fully intended carrying on with his job for the foreseeable future.

Extraordinary affair

Meanwhile, he quietly poured large amounts of manure over Mr Sixmith's head, leaving the clear impression the civil servant is not a man to be trusted with the truth.

This from a minister who only minutes before had expressed his "regret" at his own untruthfulness.

It was another extraordinary episode in what has already been an extraordinary affair.

After all the speculation about whether the prime minister was backing Mr Byers and claims the transport secretary was ready to quit, the government put on a show of solidarity.

Just half an hour after Mr Byers' statement he and his civil service mandarin Sir Richard Mottram - who had also been dragged into the row - were in Downing Street meeting Tony Blair in a calculated attempt to draw a line under the entire fiasco.

As far as the government is concerned, this is a "Westminster village" story of little interest to the general public and which will soon be forgotten.

No rebellion

The Tories put up a decent show at exploiting the minister's woes. But his shadow, Theresa May, failed to rise to the occasion.

Shadow transport secretary Theresa May
Theresa May missed her mark
And the widely-expected criticisms from his own backbenchers did not materialise.

They may not have looked particularly happy, but they were far short of rebellion.

The upshot of all this is that the affair has now entered a new phase.

All the key participants have had their say and, after apparently keeping his minister at arm's length, Tony Blair has now weighed in behind him.

The only thing that seems certain, however, is that the attempts to draw a line under the affair are doomed to failure.

Mr Sixmith is continuing with his allegations and the Tories are repeating their demands for Mr Byers' head, claiming he has confessed to lying.

And, of course, there will be the weekly question time clash between Tony Blair and Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith on Wednesday.

This row is still not about to evaporate but the battle lines are now a little clearer.

And it is still far too early to claim that Mr Byers will still be in his job this time next week.

See also:

26 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Byers in Downing Street for talks
26 Feb 02 | UK Politics
A very British row
26 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Key extracts: Sixsmith interview
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