Stephen Byers is not only useless. He is nasty as well. A man of mediocre ability, negative administrative skills and recurrent problems with factual accuracy, he can claim only one achievement during his tenure at Transport – though this was, admittedly, a feat verging on the miraculous. Mr Byers has made John Prescott look good.
Even before the latest dégringolade, Mr Byers was due for the sack at the next reshuffle. Now, he must be the only person in Westminster who cannot see that he is finished. If he had a shred of self-respect, he would go at once – but the shreds and patches which make up the Byers character did not come from good cloth. We are dealing with a minister who will drag out the indignities of a squalid departure, at whatever cost to the running of his department.
But this is not simply a question of one man's worthlessness. Nothing is unique about Mr Byers's moral failings. These have not only destroyed his political career. They now afflict the entire New Labour project, in which he used to be an important player.
It might now seem incredible, but in 1997 great things were expected of Mr Byers. He was even spoken of as a possible future Prime Minister. Formerly a left-winger, he had made the transition to Blairism and had learned to travel light ideologically while giving the impression that he was a man of substance. A law lecturer – even if only in a polytechnic – he was thought to have brains and to be the type of rising young politician who could help Tony Blair to add intellectual weight to Blairism (how absurd such a notion now seems).
That assessment of Mr Byers was only accurate in one respect: travelling light. When he was a left-winger, Mr Byers presumably had beliefs, values and principles. When he became a Blairite, he renounced all of that in favour of one-dimensional politics driven solely by personal ambition.
That, plus sycophancy and sound-bite skills, ensured a rapid rise through the middle ranks. Then the problems began. Once Mr Byers reached the cabinet front line, it was no longer enough to read out Alastair Campbell's sound-bite for the day. Mr Byers suddenly had to run a big ministry and take big decisions. These had to bear some relation to reality and truth; he had problems with both of those concepts.
So did other key figures. The permanent secretary, Sir Richard Mottram, was especially culpable. Under the British system of government – and despite New Labour's raids on its integrity – permanent secretaries enjoy great power. They are not only the chief executives of their departments; they are the moral trustees, who have the duty, and the right, to maintain high standards. That he failed to do.
As I understand it, even Mr Byers had come to see the need to part with Jo Moore; she was a greater liability than he was. But he and Miss Moore are close friends, so he was determined to protect her amour-propre. She felt that her departure would be less humiliating if Martin Sixsmith went too, and Mr Byers was happy to agree.
This was where Sir Richard should have intervened. Political advisers such as Miss Moore are creatures of the moment and of their ministerial bosses, but Mr Sixsmith is different. Despite his unorthodox background, he is a civil servant.
Mr Sixsmith only joined the civil service in 1997; before that, he had been a BBC journalist – and a life-long Labour supporter. During the "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive'' phase of Blairism, Mr Sixsmith's idealism drew him to government service, but this was not necessarily a liability. Government press officers have often recruited former journalists who had partisan political pasts, but always on the assumption that they would cease to be partisan. Martin Sixsmith was happy to accept those terms.
Nor is it suggested anywhere that he had been a negligent civil servant. Those who have dealt with him say that he is efficient and straight. The rules on civil service impartiality were drawn up before the rapid expansion in the size of ministerial press officers, and given the nature of their work, press officers inevitably encounter difficulties in implementing them.
If you are employed by a ministry, it is not easy to explain your minister's policies without being drawn into putting a good gloss on them, and how do you manage to do that while remaining politically neutral? But Mr Sixsmith's press clients give him high marks for negotiating the moral hazards of press officership.
As a civil servant, Mr Sixsmith enjoyed many more rights than Miss Moore did. Civil servants cannot be sacked on a minister's whim, nor on a permanent secretary's. A given minister might declare that he found it impossible to work with a given civil servant, but this would not mean that the civil servant would be dismissed. Unless he had committed a breach of discipline, he would merely be found another job within the department.
There was no suggestion that Mr Sixsmith had done anything wrong and there was talk of moving him to another post. But that would not have satisfied Ms Moore, which is why Sir Richard got involved – and where he committed a grave dereliction of duty. He should have reminded Mr Byers of the rules. Instead, he tried to bribe Mr Sixsmith to go quietly; the bribe (in the form of a handsome redundancy payment) would have been financed by the taxpayer.
When Mr Sixsmith proved un-bribeable, Sir Richard mentioned the No 10 smear machine, which would set out to destroy his reputation. We have moved a long way from the Blairite idealism which attracted Mr Sixsmith into government service.
Sir Richard had misread his man. Mr Sixsmith could not be bribed, bullied or threatened. But it is no part of a permanent secretary's duty to bribe, bully and threaten members of his department. In one rare moment of self-knowledge, Sir Richard let forth a volley of expletives, telling a fellow civil servant that "the whole department's... completely fucked''. If so, the fault is Sir Richard's, and he should now consider the pleasures of sex and travel.
But the cancer will not be eliminated by his departure. We now have a Government which has debased moral standards in public life to such an extent that a permanent secretary can casually refer to the "No 10 smear machine'' in his dealings with another senior official – as if such machinery were a routine and legitimate part of British Government.
We now need to know the size of this machine, how many people work in it, and how much it costs the taxpayer. But we also need to be clear about the responsibility for this smear machine. That lies with Mr Blair. He could not run his Government in the way he did without a ruthless subordination of facts and truth to the demands of spin and headlines. But it is not enough to subordinate the truth; it is necessary to coerce anyone who might hold out against this process. That is where the smear machine comes in, a vital part of the Blairite state – and of the lies and corruption which sustain it.Reuse content