Stephen Byers, the embattled Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, yesterday voiced his "anger" at the way BMW had kept him in the dark about the break-up of Rover, preventing the Government from helping rescue the car-maker.
During two hours of tough questioning by the Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee, Mr Byers criticised the German car-maker's behaviour, claiming its senior executives had given "inaccurate" accounts of their dealings with him and pretended it was "business as usual" while plotting the sale of Rover and Land Rover.
In the Commons, the Prime Minister came to the defence of Mr Byers, in the face of accusations from William Hague, that he had engaged in "doctoring and denial" in his dealings with BMW. The Tory leader's allegations were prompted by a briefing note handed out by Mr Byers to journalists last week which suggested that BMW did not give any indication that the Longbridge plant was at risk if the EU structural grants were not approved.
In bitter exchanges, Mr Hague said: "After that tale of doctoring and denial, wouldn't we be right to conclude that nothing this Secretary of State says can any longer be believed?"
He suggested that Mr Byers should be replaced by a new Secretary of State who "focuses on the future instead of covering up his recent failures".
But Tony Blair defended Mr Byers, claiming he had given the "fullest possible account" of talks with the German car-makers and dismissing Mr Hague's charges as "absolute nonsense". He said: "The reason there was the series of meetings with BMW is because everyone knew there was a critical situation. Of course they did." Challenged by the Tory leader to back Mr Byers, Mr Blair added : "Of course I do."
Mr Byers took the unprecedented step of publishing minutes of meetings and telephone calls between himself and the chairman of BMW, Professor Joachim Milberg, and the chairman of Rover, Professor Werner Samann.
Mr Byers maintained that the written records proved he was never told of BMW's intention to break up and sell Rover cars to Alchemy and Land Rover to Ford.
"There was no indication, no hint, that BMW was considering breaking up Rover and selling Longbridge to Alchemy," he told the MPs. "For all outward appearances, it was business as usual. We were never given the opportunity of saving Longbridge from being sold to Alchemy or saving Rover as a group in the UK."
Mr Byers said this had made him angry because just six days before BMW announced the Rover break-up, Mr Byers had met Professor Samann and was given no inkling of what was afoot.
A Civil Service note of the meeting on 10 March shows that Professor Samann put forward a four-point plan for stemming Rover's losses, which were running at £2m a day.
The plan involved job cuts, switching component supplies abroad, reducing production of the Rover 25 and 75 models and bringing to a halt the manufacture of pressings, gearboxes and engine parts to concentrate on Rover's "core business".
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