Stephen Byers rediscovered his media skills on Friday as Labour Party grandees demanded the resignation of his special adviser, Jo Moore.
In an attempt to defuse the controversy over Ms Moore, who on 11 September suggested her colleagues use the attacks to "bury bad news", the Secretary of State for Transport gave a series of carefully circumscribed interviews on the affair. To prevent a media "scrum", all the interviews were conducted inside the broadcasting room at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions' offices in central London.
Mr Byers refused to hold a press conference on the Railtrack saga, preferring instead to be questioned by hand-picked transport and business correspondents individually. One BBC political reporter was barred from interviewing him.
The tightly controlled management of the media, particularly Mr Byers' decision to stay in his offices all day, was part of a concerted effort by the Government to deal with the Moore problem.
The strategy was agreed upon by Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, his director of communications, and Mr Byers after the Prime Minister arrived back in Britain from his latest trip to the Middle East.
Downing Street was the first to issue the new government "line" on the issue, telling the press at its morning briefing that "it's time to move on" from the controversy. Mr Byers repeated this during his interviews, but was not questioned about the degree to which his Permanent Secretary, Sir Richard Mottram, was involved, or about whether the special advisers' code of conduct had been breached.
More details came to light Friday of the precise nature of Ms Moore's attempt to get civil servants to brief against Bob Kiley, the London transport commissioner, who is opposed to government policy for the Underground.
Ms Moore asked a junior member of the DTLR's press office to start leaking details to the press of a report that would be unfavourable to Mr Kiley.
Charlotte Morgan was told to leak the information to selected journalists on a strictly non-attributable basis, a practice normally only executed by special advisers. Ms Morgan complained to her boss, Alun Evans, the director of communication later moved from his post. Whitehall sources said Ms Morgan and Mr Evans were then hauled before Sir Richard Mottram and "given a bollocking" for not complying with Ms Moore's demands.
The further details came as Tam Dalyell, the father of the House, joined Gerald Kaufman, the Labour chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, and other MPs in calling for Ms Moore's resignation over her e-mail on 11 September. "What is wrong here is not just the lack of decency but the tastelessness of the word 'bury', the callous cynicism going well beyond a momentary lapse of judgment," Mr Dalyell said.
The Labour backbencher John Cryer also called for Ms Moore to be sacked, telling the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "The behaviour she has displayed flies in the face of any public service ethos I have ever heard of and it flies in the face of everything the Labour Party has ever stood for."
But Ms Moore was defended by another Labour MP, Stephen Pound, who said Ms Moore could not have known how awful the consequences of the attacks would be. "Hindsight gives you perfect vision, but who could have guessed how awful and terrifying those events would be?" he said. "I think Jo Moore acted at the time in the light of the information she had and to try to crucify her now is absolutely outrageous."
Last night, the extent of the speculation surrounding Mr Byers' future was made clear when City Index, a betting firm, said the latest "spread" on its books gave Mr Byers only 45 to 50 days left in his post.Reuse content