Stephen Byers will come under fresh fire in the Commons today amid signs that the Prime Minister is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the performance of his Transport Secretary.
Number 10 was said to be deeply concerned yesterday about the continuing row over his special adviser, Jo Moore, and with the Transport Secretary's seeming inability to get to grips with Railtrack.
Mr Byers had already incurred the deep displeasure of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, but Tony Blair was always seen as his principal backer.
In the Commons today, Mr Byers will face tough questioning over his handling of Ms Moore's indiscretions and the demise of Railtrack as a going concern. He will also be challenged over the mounting costs of that decision and the degree to which taxpayers will be expected to pick up the huge bill.
Ms Moore was responsible for the notorious email on 11 September, which blatantly trawled for bad news to "bury" under cover of the terrorist atrocities in America.
Last week she was accused of trying to limit media coverage of the minutes of meetings between Mr Byers and Railtrack by briefing a handful of selected journalists while the Chancellor of the Exchequer was in the act of delivering his pre-Budget report.
Whitehall officials expressed their belief yesterday that Ms Moore would now be forced to resign.
One source said: "As long as she is seen to be involved in sensitive issues at the department, there will be suspicions about the motive behind announcements. If she is not involved in sensitive decisions, one has to ask: do we really need her?"
Meanwhile, Parliament's watchdog on sleaze has been urged to investigate the "atmosphere of secrecy" in Whitehall which has protected Ms Moore. The Commons Committee on Standards in Public Life is being asked to discover if ministers are failing to enforce a code of conduct that was issued by the Government in June. In particular, Mark Oaten, the chairman of the Liberal Democrats, has called on Sir Nigel Wicks, chairman of the committee, to find out if all contacts between members of the media and civil servants and spin doctors such as Ms Moore are recorded, as the code requires.
In a letter to Sir Nigel, Mr Oaten also urges the committee to investigate whether civil servants can raise concerns "without fear of retribution" and whether the "atmosphere of secrecy" surrounding such issues is "conducive to high standards of conduct".
Alun Evans, a senior civil servant, was moved from his job as director of communications at the Department of Transport after he questioned the propriety of involving civil service press officers in a campaign against Bob Kiley, London's transport commissioner. Ms Moore was said to be the prime mover in the campaign. The Liberal Democrat chairman pointed out that Mr Evans would also have been responsible for ensuring that the code of conduct was obeyed within his department.
"Although the Government has enacted legislation to protect whistleblowers in the public service, where special advisers are concerned unless a civil servant is prepared to commit the equivalent of professional suicide by pursuing a complaint, suspected misconduct will pass without any investigation." In the Commons, Opposition MPs will seek to maximise Mr Byers' discomfort. He will be asked to explain why the number of trains running late has risen from a quarter to a third since the company was forced into administration.
Mr Byers will be asked to accept criminal liability for safety on the railways currently resting with the Railtrack board amid claims that safety inspections have been substantially reduced.Reuse content