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UK Politics

Byers and the long goodbye

In the end he had to go - sparking a major ministerial shuffle, report Steve Richards and Jo Dillon

Speculation about the possible departure of Stephen Byers from the Government had been raging for several months. Yet Mr Byers' political death was curiously sudden. Even last Sunday he was fighting to save his career showing no signs that he was about to fall on his sword.

On Sunday lunchtime Mr Byers gave a robust interview to Radio 4's The World This Weekend in which he talked at length about his future plans as Secretary of State for Transport. He was responding in defiant mood to the Transport Select Committee's highly critical report of the Government's Ten Year Plan. "I'm going to publish my own report," he said. "I believe in promoting real choice in Transport and that is what I intend to do. In July I will report on the progress I have made".

The next day several newspapers reported that he would make significant changes to the Ten Year Plan. The reports were authoritative, based on briefings from senior sources in his department; he would certainly have authorised the briefings, or been the source.

At the same time, close ministerial allies were also expressing confidence that the Secretary of State for Transport would survive. One who worked closely with Mr Byers told The Independent on Sunday that "Stephen has got through the worst. If he can get on with the job things will look brighter for him in the autumn".

But there was another side to it. He was being ground down by the relentlessly hostile media coverage, and his association with every story that embarrassed the Government – Dirty Desmond, the euro, spin, the appalling state of public transport. With close friends he had talked about the "liberation" of leaving all the chaos behind, but last weekend he was still battling on.

More significantly, Mr Blair and his easily panicked entourage were in despair. They wanted to keep Mr Byers and not throw him to the media hounds. But polls and focus groups, still obsessively scrutinised in Downing Street, showed he had become a huge liability. Shortly before his departure a senior Government insider noted that "even if we make any improvements in transport, Stephen won't get the credit. If there aren't tangible improvements almost immediately he will be slaughtered". For a government obsessed with presentation, this amounts to a death warrant.

On Monday morning Mr Byers realised there was more trouble to come. His communications director, Martin Sixsmith, was to step down formally on Friday – and, friends of Mr Sixsmith say, in the process raise more questions about the Secretary of State for Transport's relationship with the truth.

Mr Byers arranged to meet Tony Blair to discuss the barrage of problems. Contrary to reports, they had two meetings on Monday; in the second he offered his resignation.

The subsequent reshuffle was much more extensive than had been anticipated, especially at the junior level. As far as Mr Blair was concerned the timing was convenient. He was impatient to make changes at the Home Office. Neatly, his friend Lord Falconer washed his hands of the Dome last Wednesday – the day he was made a Home Office minister. Other moves show signs of considerable thought, including the transfer of Yvette Cooper from Health to the Lord Chancellor's Office.

Ms Cooper was the focus of a bitter clash between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on the morning of the reshuffle. The Chancellor of the Exchequer – a supporter of Ms Cooper, the Public Health Minister who is married to his chief economic adviser Ed Balls – was furious that the former journalist was to miss out on the promotion he felt she deserved.

The root of the move appears to have been a "personality clash" with her boss at the Department of Health, Alan Milburn. According to departmental sources, he knew that Ms Cooper was "hugely ambitious" and "always felt he was looking over his shoulder". Government sources said Ms Cooper – informed while on a holiday ferry that she was effectively to be demoted – initially turned down Mr Blair's offer. "It was explained it was not a good thing for her to do." As a sop to Ms Cooper, she was told she would be handling any future euro referendum. She accepted the second offer.

The reshuffle appears to have been decided long before Mr Byers handed in his notice. Originally due for July, it was accelerated because of his departure. "He and Tony had decided it had just become impossible, that he had become the story rather than the policy," a government source said. "They decided together."

Mr Byers has hit upon a Third Way in resignations. He resigned, but with Mr Blair's blessing. In their meetings last Monday Mr Byers would almost certainly have stayed on had Mr Blair insisted. Indirectly it was therefore Mr Blair who decided to lose another close ministerial ally. Mr Byers joins Mr Mandelson on the back benches.