Tory fury at Byers for missing spin debate

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Stephen Byers was accused of "breathtaking arrogance" yesterday for failing to answer Parliament over his handling of the Railtrack affair.

Tim Collins, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, opened a debate on Mr Byers' conduct and government spin by lambasting the Secretary of State for Transport for choosing to open a bridge in his North Tyneside constituency instead of replying to an opposition debate in the Commons.

Government sources disclosed that his beleaguered special adviser, Jo Moore, was expected to leave her job after the latest controversy over Railtrack, in which minutes of a controversial meeting were released as the Chancellor was delivering his pre-Budget report to Parliament last week. "It is only a matter of time," said one source. Her departure may be delayed so that the Government is not seen to be bowing to pressure from the media for her to be sacked in what her friends believe is a campaign by civil servants to oust her.

A Whitehall source said that Ms Moore had appeared to weather the storm over the notorious e-mail she sent minutes after the 11 September terrorist attacks, saying it would be a good day to "bury" bad news. But the source added: "Last week was the final straw. No one thinks she can survive a second crisis because she has now become the story."

Ms Moore is said to be distressed by the media coverage she believes is making it virtually impossible for her to do her job. "I am not sure she even wants to do it any more," said one source.

Opening a debate on a motion condemning "cynical news management strategies" in Mr Byers' department, Mr Collins accused Mr Byers of producing "a trail of slime". He told MPs: "This is a Secretary of State who has twisted, evaded, rewritten the truth and hidden that facts time and time again.

"He is someone who has moved at a snail's pace to answer questions, a snail's pace to improve transport, a snail's pace to raise safety standards on the railway.

"As long as the Prime Minister ignores all considerations of honesty and honour and keeps this man in office, this Secretary of State, like a snail, will produce a trail of slime weaving across Downing Street right up to the door of Number 10."

Mr Collins said: "We find it simply breathtaking that Mr Byers should have refused point blank to come here to debate a motion specifically and personally critical of him. In all the annals of arrogance for which this Government and that Secretary of State have become notorious, this utter display of contempt for Parliament bulks large."

Mr Byers spent the day in his North Tyneside constituency. He opened the Lemington Bridge, before spending the afternoon on "private business".

Asked about the future of Ms Moore, Mr Byers said: "Clearly Jo Moore is working for me as my special adviser, but this is all a distraction from the big issue which was my decisive action over Railtrack." He added: "I know that the Conservatives aren't too worried about potentially 5,000 jobs in the north-east of England, but I am. What the Conservatives cannot come to terms with is I took the decisive action to kill off what was probably their most failed privatisation, which was Railtrack.

"I think the action we took in relation to Railtrack was putting the travelling public first. The public know that we had to take action to remedy the problems with the railways. Now we will move forward and create a railway which is fit for the 21st century."

A spokesman for Downing Street defended Mr Byers' decision not to reply to the debate, saying it was customary for a Minister of State to wind up in the Commons. The Conservatives had fielded Eric Pickles, the shadow Transport Secretary, to reply to Mr Byers, who was replaced by the Cabinet Office minister Barbara Roche.