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Thursday, 16 May, 2002, 18:44 GMT 19:44 UK
Byers back in the mire
Transport Secretary Stephen Byers
Byers has been forced before MPs twice
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By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Just when Stephen Byers must have thought things couldn't get any worse, they did.

This time, he told a large, women-only group of political journalists that Tony Blair planned to introduce legislation in the next session of parliament to hold a referendum on the euro.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair has backed him
Downing Street immediately played down the comments, without actually ruling out a referendum some time next year.

But his comments, in an off -the-record lunch, sparked a frenzy of activity in Westminster.

And he was named as the source by the Tories within hours of the event.

Not sanctioned

The first reaction was that the whole thing had been set up by Downing Street to boost the clandestine pro-euro campaign.

If it was, it was probably not part of the plan that Mr Byers was ever named.

But anyone with any experience of Westminster should have known that by speaking at such a large gathering, his identity was bound to leak - and it didn't take long.

Alternatively, if the carefully-worded denials from Downing Street really mean the action was not sanctioned there is only one other option.

And that is that the fiercely pro-euro minister had been lobbying for his own position.

It may also simply be that the prime minister, without sanctioning this particular mess, has told his pro-euro ministers they are no longer gagged and can say what they like.

Bad news

Either way, Mr Byers is in the mire yet again and this time it is the prime minister he has embarrassed.

He already has past form for similar activities, of course.

Most notably, shortly before the 1997 election, he told a small group of journalists over a dinner at a party conference that Labour intended to sever its links with the unions.

That was always believed to have been sanctioned by Downing Street and caused a huge row at the time.

Since then there has been the Jo "bury the bad news" Moore affair, apologies to parliament for misleading them, another statement to MPs denying he had misled them in the first statement - and now this.

Once again, his cabinet future is under question. But there are no signs Tony Blair is about to sack him - and the nature of the event means it can always be claimed the actual words are disputed.

But there are few people in Westminster who believe Mr Byers is not out at the next reshuffle.

And the ultra-cynical are even suggesting that, in the run up to his eventual sacking, he is being blatantly used by Tony Blair to road test difficult isues.

See also:

16 May 02 | UK Politics
Euro vote timetable 'unveiled'
15 May 02 | UK Politics
Blair's euro enthusiasm
16 May 02 | UK Politics
Tory chief to Blair: Get on with it
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