Labour MPs close ranks around embattled minister

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Indy Politics

Labour backbenchers and virtually the entire Cabinet threw a protective shield around Stephen Byers yesterday in the biggest display of Commons support for a minister in recent years.

In a carefully choreographed show of loyalty, Labour MPs lined up one after another to heap praise on Mr Byers and to attack the "feeding frenzy" being conducted by both the Tories and the media.

Senior cabinet ministers such as John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, and Charles Clarke, the Labour Party chairman, were all present for Mr Byers's statement. Only the Prime Minister was absent.

Even independent-minded MPs such as Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairwoman of the Commons Transport Select Committee, and Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister, rallied to support him. From Clive Soley, former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, to Karen Buck, a rebel over the public-private partnership proposed for the London Underground, MPs all agreed that the Transport Secretary should be allowed to concentrate on the daily problems of the public.

Chris Mullin, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, typified the feelings of Labour MPs when he praised Mr Byers for his integrity. "With his statement, he has lanced the boil. There must be no surrender to the feeding frenzy," he said.

Mr Kilfoyle, MP for Liverpool Walton, criticised "the futile fumbling" of the Opposition, and Mr Soley said: "This is a story of the media, by the media, for the media".

Most Labour MPs praised Mr Byers for putting Railtrack into administration. The only backbencher to ask a pointed question was Tam Dalyell, the Father of the House, who earlier called for his resignation. Mr Dalyell asked what led Sir Richard Mottram, the Permanent Secretary at the DTLR, to say he and his department were "stymied", a euphemism for the four-letter word Sir Richard used at the weekend.

As Mr Byers left the chamber, he was slapped on the back by several ministers, and backbenchers cheered and waved their order papers. The Transport Secretary then took the unusual step of going straight to the Commons tea room to thank MPs for rallying behind him.

Whips had toured the palace urging MPs to show their support for Mr Byers by turning up en masse for the statement. Some MPs claimed they had been sent pager messages "reminding" them of the importance of the occasion.

However, one whip said: "You can send out all the messages you want, but the sort of people who stood up today are the sort who don't pay attention to pagers. They showed just how strong the feeling was."

The most negative comment came from a former minister: "He didn't do that well, but he did well enough. He should be all right for the time being."

Other Labour MPs claimed the Tories made a tactical mistake in putting so much emphasis on Mr Sixsmith's account, particularly given The Mirror's claim this week that he had briefed against Ms Moore.

The display of loyalty was complete last night when Mr Byers was given the Prime Minister's full backing after a stage-managed meeting at Downing Street with Sir Richard.