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Friday, 10 May, 2002, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
Blair fights on in media battle
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By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

You have to hand it to Stephen Byers - he has attracted an impressive group of supporters throughout his "spingate" trials.

The prime minister is the most important of his backers, of course.

His persistent support has bemused observers who often, uncharitably, wonder exactly what it is the minister has got on Tony Blair.

But Mr Byers has also won support from as diverse a bunch of people as Leader of Commons Robin Cook, backbench rebel and former minister Peter Kilfoyle and even ex-minister Chris Mullin.

Surely claims that a minister misled Parliament can't be described as small beer?

Mr Kilfoyle's support during the Commons debate on Thursday was surprising enough - but Chris Mullin?

This is the man who led demands for a freedom of information bill and more openness and democracy in the Labour party.

He has a well-earned reputation as one of the fiercest defenders of parliamentary accountability and scourge of the establishment - so much so he actually requested to be dropped from Tony Blair's front bench so he could better monitor the executive through the select committee system.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when he claimed the allegations against Mr Byers - which are basically about whether he told MPs the truth - were "small beer".

Serious claims

It is perfectly possible that all these people genuinely believe Mr Byers did not mislead the Commons in his statement on the resignation of Martin Sixmith back in February.

They are probably in a minority in Westminster, but no one would doubt their integrity on this issue.

But surely claims that a minister misled Parliament can't be described as small beer?

Stephen Byers in Newcastle on Friday
Stephen Byers has some high-profile support
However, there is another factor at work here and it is the one that many believe is motivating some of those supporting Mr Byers - particularly the Downing Street cabal.

The prime minister and his advisors have decided, probably rightly, that the overwhelming majority of the voters couldn't give a monkey's about who said what to who and when over the fate of a couple of faceless civil servants.

The only battle, therefore, is between the government and the "evil axis" of the Tories and the media.

Battling on for victory

And it is the latter "enemy" that Downing Street is, as ever, most obsessed with.

As one backbencher declared over a pint: "There's no way we are going to let you lot win this one."

So there we have it. Forget high-minded notions of accountability, integrity and so on.

This is all about Tony Blair's determination not to be seen to be bullied by the media into dropping a minister.

One frontbencher, at least, has let his disquiet over the entire "spingate" affair see the light of day.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher gave the usual defence of Mr Byers during BBC One's Question Time on Thursday night, although he strangely asserted that Mr Byers had actually apologised to MPs.

But he was asked whether Mr Byers should have been sacked for his previous inaccurate statements about the affair.

Remember, the latest row is all about the statement he made to MPs apologising for the last time he misled them, during a TV interview.

Mr Meacher simply said it was a matter of the prime minister's judgement.

I will leave you to decide whether that is a "yes" or a "no."

But Mr Meacher is not the only one on the frontbench who believes it is the prime minister's judgement that is at the centre of all this.

Thanks to a recent ruling by the Commons authorities, Sinn Fein MPs Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have been given offices in the Commons and access to all its facilities, despite the fact they refuse to swear the oath of allegiance.

This has infuriated Tory and Unionist MPs but has clearly also angered members of the Commons staff.

A member of the public recently rang the House of Commons switchboard and asked to be put through to Mr McGuinness.

"Well," said a frosty operator, "he hasn't taken the oath yet - but I will put you through just this once."

Now other MPs want to know what they have to do to get their calls filtered.

Tory frontbencher Eric Pickles has, I am afraid, earned himself a new nickname.

He has revealed that, when interviewed by the Brentwood and Ongar constituency party during his selection, he told them he was "too fat and liked westerns."

His new nickname - what else but "Hoss." Remember him, the fat cowboy in the TV series Bonanza?

Good news from Faversham and Mid Kent's Tory MP Hugh Robertson - his wedding is back on.

The former Life Guard is a staunch royalist and is proud of the fact that in 1993 he commanded the Household Cavalry for the Queen's birthday parade and at the state opening of Parliament.

So, when the Queen Mother's lying in state was announced last month he immediately realised his carefully planned wedding on 5 April in St Margaret's Church, next to Westminster Abbey, could not go ahead.

He did his duty and cancelled.

Guests who were flying into Britain from around the world for the occasion had to be stood down and all the usual arrangements for cars, the reception and so on, had to be cancelled.

It was an exercise that would have tested even the best military brains.

But this story has a happy ending. Mr Robertson and his intended, Anna Copson, have now re-scheduled for 17 May.

Commons staff have been bewildered by the regular discovery of knives, forks, salt and pepper pots and side plates appearing in the stairway leading to the public gallery.

But the chairman of the Commons catering committee, Dennis Turner, has answered the riddle.

Apparently visitors, having been searched once on entering the Palace of Westminster, believe they are in the clear so occasionally engage in the time-honoured hobby of collecting small "souvenirs" from the cafes in the building.

It isn't until they approach the public gallery that they realise to their horror that they have to be searched again.

Like a scene from a Marx Brothers film, they then attempt to dispose of their ill gotten gains by scattering them along the route to the chamber.

Mind you, you have to go a long way to beat the thief who is at work in the press gallery in the Commons.

He or she recently managed to "liberate" a laser printer - not quite the sort of item to slip up your sleeve or under your coat.

One of the longest serving members of the press gallery, David Healy, has decided after 27 years to move on to better things - running a restaurant with the help of his son, a leading London chef.

Healy will be hugely missed in the Commons where he was known and loved by everyone from, in no order of importance, prime ministers to cleaners.

His departure was marked on Thursday night by the sort of send-off seldom seen nowadays in the press gallery.

The bar was packed to bursting with colleagues. staff, MPs and Lords. Speaker Michael Martin sent his personal tribute.

Needless to say, numerous stories were told centring on his legendary absent mindedness which often led to him losing things - his jacket, his cigarettes and even the entire contents of his pockets.

One concerned the occasion when, to absolutely no ones surprise, he managed to lose the highly expensive laptop computer that had just been provided for him by his employers.

He was beside himself until he received a call from a peer saying the machine had been found and, thanks to the name tag, been returned to him.

"And I don't own a bloody computer, so it must be yours," growled Lord Dennis Healey!


If you have any political gossip or information on what our MPs are up to, e-mail Nick Assinder (all mails will be treated as confidential).

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