Byers apologises - and escapes again

'If I did not put forward a view, or make clear my views to others inside and outside the department, that is obviously something I regret and I welcome this opportunity in the House to clarify matters'
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Indy Politics

Stephen Byers won a stay of execution last night, even though he had to apologise for making a misleading statement about his role in the departure of his civil service director of communications.

The Tories said the beleaguered Transport Secretary had admitted that he "lied" in a television interview on Sunday, and warned they would pursue Mr Byers until he was forced out of office.

But Cabinet colleagues and Labour MPs rallied behind Mr Byers in an orchestrated show of support when he made a Commons statement about the crisis that has engulfed his Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR).

Tony Blair was not present in the Commons, but the Prime Minister underlined his support at a 30-minute Downing Street meeting last night with Mr Byers and Sir Richard Mottram, his Permanent Secretary. The talks were aimed at "drawing a line" under the affair and shifting the focus back on to the policy issues facing the DTLR.

The willingness of Labour MPs to back Mr Byers appeared to have given him a reprieve last night. Without their crucial support, Cabinet ministers believe he would have been forced to quit immediately. However, some Labour MPs believe he could yet be sacked if he fails to "get a grip" quickly on his troubled department.

Earlier yesterday, there were signs that Downing Street was distancing itself from Mr Byers. It refused to endorse his claim on ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby programme on Sunday that he was not "involved" in the negotiations over the future of his civil service director of communications, Martin Sixsmith. His statement came after the Government announced on 15 February that he and Jo Moore, Mr Byers's special adviser, were both resigning after a long-running feud between Ms Moore and civil service press officers.

On Sunday, Mr Byers said he was "kept informed" of the developing situation after Mr Sixsmith refused to resign, but repeatedly insisted that he was not involved and that it was handled by Sir Richard.

Asked by Jonathan Dimbleby whether he had any conversations with Sir Richard, he replied: "No, these are personnel issues." He also denied blocking a face-saving compromise under which Mr Sixsmith would move to another Whitehall department.

Yesterday Mr Byers admitted he had told Sir Richard he believed Mr Sixsmith should not be given another job. He insisted that the final decision was not for him to take, but added: "If my answers on the programme gave the impression that I did not put forward a view, or make clear my views to others inside and outside the department, that is obviously something I regret and I welcome this opportunity in the House to clarify matters."

Tim Collins, the Tories' shadow Cabinet Office minister, said: "This statement does not remotely get Stephen Byers out of trouble. The only new fact which we have learned is that Mr Byers admits openly that he lied on the Dimbleby programme and that he does not seem particularly apologetic about doing so."

Mr Collins added: "More incredibly, the Prime Minister appears to believe Mr Byers's statement was perfectly acceptable. It certainly says something about this Government that a minister who admits he lies is allowed to remain in the Cabinet."

Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "Stephen Byers's statement was a disgrace. It underlines his lack of judgment and his inability to run this important department of state. He must now go -- he should resign immediately before he is pushed."

Last night, Mr Sixsmith told The Independent: "I welcome the fact that Mr Byers has now acknowledged he was misleading with the truth and has apologised for this. That is a step forward. His gratuitous personal insults against me were less than welcome."

Mr Sixsmith remains in limbo because he has not resigned or been sacked, despite Downing Street's fury that he has broken his civil service contract by publicly criticising Mr Byers. The First Division Association, the trade union representing senior civil servants, is negotiating a severance package for him worth up to £100,000.

"I am not interested in money; I am only interested in maintaining my reputation and my job," said Mr Sixsmith. He argued that yesterday's war of words with Mr Byers could have been avoided if the Transport Secretary had not blocked his move to another Whitehall post.

After last night's Downing Street talks with Mr Byers and Sir Richard, Mr Blair's official spokesman said the Prime Minister was pleased that Mr Byers had performed so well in the Commons.

"Far from this meeting being a carpeting, the Prime Minister wanted to indicate his support for them and the work they are doing, which is ultimately far more important than the dispute which has attracted so much attention in the last few days," the spokesman said.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said Mr Blair was "satisfied" with the explanation given by Mr Byers for his comments on Sunday. He said the Transport Secretary had not wanted to become involved in a "slanging match" with Mr Sixsmith and had been anxious to protect the confidentiality of the talks about his future when he appeared on the programme.

Number 10 suggested that Mr Sixsmith's actions in recent days had vindicated Mr Byers's view that he was "not a fit person to remain a member of the civil service".

The spokesman said there was a difference between giving a false impression, as Mr Byers had, and condoning a false newspaper story meant to "destroy a Secretary of State".