The veteran Labour backbencher Tam Dalyell called on Stephen Byers yesterday to resign if it was revealed that his spin doctor, Jo Moore, had tried to bury controversial minutes under cover of the Chancellor's pre-Budget report.
Mr Dalyell attacked the timing of the decision to release a record of the crucial meeting in July between Mr Byers and the Railtrack chairman, John Robinson, as "clumsy and cack-handed beyond belief".
Pressure grew on Mr Byers as the Tories tabled a series of new questions about the company's collapse, and Downing Street was forced to admit that the row was "an unnecessary and unfortunate distraction".
The call from Mr Dalyell, the Father of the House of Commons, came as Mr Byers announced that the chairman of Ford of Britain, Ian McAllister, had been appointed to lead efforts to turn Railtrack into a not-for-profit company. Mr McAllister, 58, will work as an unpaid strategic adviser on a bid to take over from Railtrack, and will be the non-executive chairman of the new, limited company if it succeeds.
Mr Dalyell's comments, on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, are the sharpest criticsm yet from the Labour back benches, which have supported Mr Byers despite increasing protest over his handling of the decision to put Railtrack into administration.
Mr Byers faced criticism on Tuesday for releasing minutes of his July meeting with Mr Robinson moments after Gordon Brown stood up in the Commons to deliver his pre-Budget report. A "supplementary note" supplied with the minutes backs Mr Byers' claim that Mr Robinson used the meeting to ask for extra cash support to guarantee Railtrack continued as a going concern. Mr Robinson hotly denies making such a request.
Yesterday Downing Street denied that Ms Moore, whose infamous e-mail suggested burying bad news after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, was involved in briefing selected journalists about the document. Tony Blair's official spokesman said: "Jo Moore did not brief the journalists herself. In reference to the four newspapers involved, Jo Moore was not involved in the briefing.
"There was an internal discussion within the department and the methodology that was adopted came as a result of that internal discussion."
Theresa May, the Shadow Transport Secretary, said she was tabling fresh Parliamentary questions to find out when the civil service note outlining Mr Byers' version of the meeting was released. Another written question asks who saw the controversial note beforehand.
Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, attacked the culture of spin. He told the Conservative Women's Conference: "I have now got to the stage that every time a big story breaks I find myself looking for the bad news which Stephen Byers will inevitably be trying to bury behind it. In terms of work rate he puts most undertakers to shame.
"What utter contempt they show for Parliament and the British people who put them there," he said.
Mr McAllister said last night he hoped to have appointed by Christmas a chief executive to head a team of financial, legal and technical advisers bidding to replace Railtrack. However, he said the bid would not be formally submitted until some time in the New Year and then it could take three to six months for Railtrack's successor to come into operation.Reuse content