Byers' 'disappearing act' reflects Labour's sensitivity over spin

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Indy Politics

Stephen Byers and his trusted sidekick Jo Moore have performed a great political vanishing act.

Their invisibility since The Independent revealed Ms Moore's unfortunate memo on 11 September speaks volumes about New Labour's extreme sensitivity over the issue.

To disappear from sight runs counter to every instinct for Mr Byers, who has gone out of his way to court the media since arriving in Parliament nine years ago.

Even after reaching the Cabinet, when many politicians retreat behind the civil service machine, he continued to cultivate relationships with journalists through drinks parties and regular calls to explain policy. Routine inquiries to departmental press officers were often returned by a call from the minister himself.

Ms Moore might lack some of the personal charm of her boss but she adopted the same media-friendly strategy, rarely failing to answer messages or provide some "helpful" background information.

All that has changed since Tuesday. Attempts to contact either, or even to spot them in public, have proved futile. In striking contrast to his previous high profile on the issue, Mr Byers has not given any interviews on his decision to pull the plug on Railtrack in its present form. It has meant he has avoided the inevitable, uncomfortable questions about his special adviser's conduct.

A press conferenceon Thursday to publicise his efforts to encourage towns and cities to embrace the idea of elected mayors was conducted by one of his deputies, Nick Raynsford, the Local Government minister. The unenviable task of facing the flak fell to Mr Raynsford.

A spokesman for the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions denied that Mr Byers had cancelled any public engagements and maintained that the minister had had a "normal working day".

Meanwhile, Ms Moore has remained uncharacteristically out of contact, not responding to pager or telephone messages. The woman who only days earlier was tirelessly spinning the Government's line on the collapse of Railtrack was said to have been in meetings all day. Given the continuing storm that she and Mr Byers face, it may still be a while before either of them surface.