The gaffe strewn past of the Minister of Spin

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Indy Politics

Under his stewardship, the Department of Transport may have been renamed the Ministry of Spin, but it was a different story during Stephen Byers' time as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Although Mr Byers' trusted special adviser, Jo Moore, was rarely far from his side during his two and a half years at the DTI, it was a period characterised by cock-ups rather than carefully spun announcements.

Mr Byers was the minister who announced a 12-point action plan to save Britain's textile industry, while wearing a suit made in South Africa. He was also the minister who promised to take the "politics out of mergers", but seemed to interfere in company takeovers at a prodigious rate.

He was the minister who coined the catchphrase "Rip-off Britain" only to discover his department could not make the charge stick. Most seriously, he was the minister who almost let Rover and 50,000 jobs go to the wall during his watch. On the very night that BMW pulled the plug on Rover, Mr Byers was still insisting that the German car maker was fully committed to its British subsidiary.

Trade and industry secretaries do not have to get on well with businessmen, but it helps. And yet Mr Byers' tenure was punctuated by rows with company chiefs. His attempt to turn the loss of 6,000 steel workers jobs to the Government's advantage so incensed the Corus chairman, Sir Brian Moffat, that they ended up no longer on speaking terms.

He also alienated the two cable television companies, NTL and Cable & Wireless, by referring their merger to the Competition Commission against the advice of the Office of Fair Trading, but after intense lobbying by Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB which had just seen its own takeover of Manchester United Football Club blocked.

To his credit, Mr Byers is remembered as the minister who brought down the price of new cars and got to grips with the safety scandal at British Nuclear Fuels by sacking its chief executive. But if a government department were a business, then his ledger at DTI would contain a good deal more debits. Not least of the criticisms was the regularity with which Mr Byers dressed mutton up as lamb by recycling old news. After the Chancellor's 1999 pre-Budget statement, he announced £1bn worth of funding for enterprise initiatives. Just £30m turned out to be new money.

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