Pressure on Moore to resign to save Byers

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Indy Politics

The beleagured spin doctor Jo Moore was under increasing pressure to quit last night to save Stephen Byers' job as Transport Secretary.

The Conservatives will put more pressure on Mr Byers on Monday when they make his department's "cynical news management strategies" the centre of an opposition day debate.

Theresa May, the shadow Transport Secretary, will wind up the debate, a procedural device that forces Mr Byers to the Commons to account for his handling of the Railtrack affair for a fourth time since the company went into administration.

Senior Government sources insisted last night that Ms Moore would not be forced out by the storm of protest over Government spin. But Downing Street refused to deny that Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's director of strategic communications, had reprimanded Mr Byers' department for "contaminating" coverage of the pre-Budget report by slipping out minutes of his disputed meeting with the Railtrack chairman, John Robinson, on Tuesday while Gordon Brown was addressing MPs.

Further trouble for Mr Byers came with Railtrack performance figures, which emerged yesterday. They show a 45 per cent increase in delays caused by track and signal failures in the two months since Railtrack went into administration. Two senior managers also resigned yesterday, fuelling concern about low morale at the company.

Jonathan Baume, general secretary of the First Division Association of Civil Servants, called on Ms Moore to "stand to one side and let the professionals get on with the job".

The motion for Monday's opposition day debate "condemns the repeated instances of inadequate or incomplete records of meetings and conversations involving ministers since 1997," and urges Mr Byers "to change his approach to informing the House and the public".

Tim Collins, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, will open the half-day debate. He said he aimed to examine "the whole sorry record of incomplete minutes of sensitive meetings, foot dragging in answering parliamentary questions and cynical and manipulative news management.

"This has, in Downing Street's memorable phrase, "contaminated" the whole Government as a result of the unethical and incompetent behaviour of Stephen Byers and his sidekicks," he said.

Mr Byers faces a gruelling week ahead. He is due to announce local-authority budget allocations on Tuesday, and will face a grilling on Wednesday on Underground part-privatisation from the Commons Transport Select Committee.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat transport spokes-man, said: "You need to feel sorry for the guy. He is trying to run a railway but he is also having increasing difficulty in burying bad news."

Mr Blair's spokesman refused to confirm that a letter reprimanding the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions for "contaminating" the pre-Budget report had been sent.

Suggestions that the Prime Minister was distancing himself from his minister were dismissed as "absolute rubbish".