Jason Nissé: This mouse of a Transport minister may yet get the Tube working

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Hurrah. Hurrah. Throw your hats in the air. The mouse has roared and the trains are going to run on time.

That is the reaction that Stephen Byers would like us to have at his intervention to impose the London Underground PPP on an unwilling London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and his Yankee sidekick Bob Kiley. But a hurrah is not what has greeted this move.

Mr Byers has been portrayed as little more than a puppet of Gordon Brown. (Have these people not been paying attention for the last three years as the two have rowed like children over the euro, competition policy and the like?) Mr Byers has been categorised as a dictator, imposing his will on poor innocent London for the good of private enterprise. Mr Byers has been characterised – by the right-wing press, mind you – as a lackey of the capitalists.

He must be doing something right.

The fact is that Stephen Byers spent nearly three years at the Department of Trade and Industry doing the square root of very little. This is a department whose function is imprecise, whose direction is fuzzy and which is staffed almost entirely with people who have no real experience of the area in which they are involved.

Bozo, as some of my rivals unkindly called him, was a typical amateur minister, having not been a businessman or even a trade union leader, but a university lecturer. But why should a minister know anything about his department? Ask Richard Caborn.

Mr Byers lack of impact at the DTI is being put into focus by the early musings of his successor, Patricia Hewitt. She, at least, has the advantage of a brief sojourn in the private sector, though from the carpings from some quarters you'd have though she'd been working for the Antichrist, not Accenture.

Already she has spotted some of the issues that befuddled the DTI under her predecessor. On Thursday she announced a "wide-ranging review to ensure focused and effective delivery of government priorities".

Even given the Labour spin filter, this clearly says something about her department. If she needs to "ensure focused and effective delivery" then the current delivery must be woolly and ineffective. If you did not already realise this, ask former workers at Corus, Motorola or Marconi. The Hewitt boot is clearly being applied to some civil servant behinds, and I wouldn't be surprised if some DTI employees joined some of their former "clients" requiring the services of the Department of Social Security.

Putting a man who was so palpably ineffective in his former post in charge of Transport looked like a feather-brained idea. It was certainly a political one. Mr Byers' move to Transport was motivated by his good relationship with Tony Blair rather than by any affinity with the subject matter. (Though I rather warm to a Transport minister who cannot drive – do we expect the Minister of Defence to be able to fly a fighter?) He took over from John Prescott, who loved the sector and knew lots about it – and for that reason was perhaps a little too close.

Mr Byers inherited the Tube PPP and it would not have been an unheard-of government move for him to have put the brakes on the deal. But, instead, he put his foot down and decided to overrule the objections of the Livingstone camp and its populist friends. But Stephen would not have been so brave alone. He has the backing of Blair, Brown and Prescott, who find it hard enough to agree on most things.

So what has he achieved? He has told Bob Kiley either to knuckle down or bugger off, neither of which he will do. But Mr Kiley will go some way to one extreme, which will leave enough room to sign the PPP deals this autumn. The two preferred bidders will be given the existing contracts and one of them will probably get the outstanding deal, for the sub-surface work.

People will moan that the PPP is not perfect, and it isn't. Some see it as a way of getting government spending off the PSBR, and it is. In an ideal world it should not exist, because the public sector should be good at big projects. But it isn't.

The PPP may be faulted but it will be progress. The bidders have promised over 100km of new track, more than 100 new escalators, overhauls of all the stations, more off-peak trains and a complete revamp of the Victoria line – the same line where thousands were trapped in the sweltering morning rush hour last week by a problem with a train.

And if you have been to London recently, you will know the transport system is pathetic and that it gives a terrible impression to those visiting who want to work, invest or holiday here.

Stephen Byers may have done more for enterprise this week than in his whole time at the DTI.