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Politicians, misleading? We must all accept responsibility
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Charles Clarke has given his judgement on the Byers thing. He says "an impression that misleading is going on" isn't good for government.

Do you have an impression that misleading is going on? We try, oh Lord we try, but how can we fail to form the impression that misleading is going on? Reasonable people all agree that if misleading weren't going on, there would be open revolution and ministerial heads would be used for World Cup kickabouts.

Perhaps we want to feel that the Potters Bar crash eclipses the trivialities of Westminster politics. On the other hand, at times of great seriousness we must remember that what these people in the political class say is always untrue. They have no interest in the whole truth. The whole truth is subversive to their purposes.

As above, so below. In the small we see the large.

So. Briefly, Mr Byers' statement entitled The Resignation of Martin Sixsmith gave the impression that Martin Sixsmith had resigned the week before: "The resignation was agreed," he said. "Both individuals [Sixsmith and Jo Moore] resigned." In column 293 we learn that "a resolution has been arrived at".

But then we discovered that he was – and months later, is – still employed. He was in some quantum limbo, like Schro-dinger's cat, resigned, resolved but still on the payroll. Nobody's to blame. Honest misunderstanding in good faith all round. And yet, Mr Sixsmith has been given £200,000 compensation to go away.

What is he being compensated for? The only people who have accepted liability so far is us. The taxpayer. It's our fault! It probably is, too – we voted for them. Mr Byers says one thing, and then, to cover the other bases, its opposite. What he says about the Potters Bar crash will be true and untrue, but will certainly be – on our current understanding of the minister and of the political process he presides over – useless.

In The Independent on Sunday yesterday, Steve Richards called for Mr Byers to be kept in post. The Richards reasoning was characteristically generous, but even so his point was good: Byers must remain, if only to take the flak.

His presence in the Government is continuously interesting. As he twists, turns, slithers and slips his way through the undergrowth, we see the modern politician – technocratic, legalistic, evasive, tenacious and contemptuous of personal responsibility – at its most characteristic. If ever we feel the need to believe completely what his boss, the Prime Minister, is saying, we should look at Mr Byers and remind ourselves What They're Like.

Did some of us wonder why Mr Byers, then at the Department of Trade and Industry, allowed Richard Desmond to buy the Express without an examination by the Competition Commission? It has come to light, though not because the Government has revealed it, that Mr Desmond gave a £100,000 donation to the Labour Party before the last election.

Did Tony Blair know? Do bears take communion in the woods?

Truth behind the literacy miracle

At least we can take comfort in the Government's success in improving by a huge margin the reading levels of 11-year-olds, can't we? Of course we can't.

In one of those judge-me-on-results boasts that the Government makes, David Blunkett vowed to get children reading at a higher level with his literacy hour. Results astonished those who believed them (me, for one). The percentage of children reaching the required standard shot up from 48 per cent under the Tories to 82 per cent last year.

A study by Professor Peter Tymms of Durham University has been running for five years across 122 primary schools. He has found that children get crammed in the weeks and months before the exam, teachers "teach the test" to the slower pupils while brighter ones look after themselves. Their performance collapses outside test conditions, at their next school. He applied the same test outside test conditions and found no improvement in reading levels whatsoever.

No risk, no risk premium

Howard Flight is on the Opposition Treasury team, but shouldn't be written off just because of that. I ran into him in the cloisters of the Commons and asked him why no risk premium had emerged for the Government raising money for its public-private partnerships after the Railtrack fiasco. He had an interesting answer: there's no risk premium because the way the London Underground contracts are evolving, the public sector takes all the risk, the private sector don't have to do anything for years, yet gets guaranteed profits. So why pursue such a poor deal? It's an accounting exercise, keep large amounts of public spending out of the public books. Can this be true? You'd have to be in Enron to be that cynical. Of course it's true.

I agree totally, now go away

AN ITEM of textual analysis. "Yes, yes, I agree with everything you say." It's a phrase you sometimes hear in political circles. Being political, the sentence means the opposite of what it says. The speaker wants to convey the message: "Shut up talking, I want to speak." This occurred to me when I was talking to Ed Balls at a Christmas party. It seemed obvious that the Chancellor's brain box would enjoy a tutorial about public policy (it was that time of night). "New Labour will never succeed because its model of human nature is defective," I told him. "Your inner-city regeneration plans, for instance, talk about empowering communities, but in fact, the closer you get to 'the community' the more elusive it becomes. We find, do we not, the regeneration board hates the council, the council hates the housing associations, the housing associations and the tenants' associations hate each other equally. Underneath the cant of local co-operation we find their interests are all different and often inimical. It's like the Balkans down there, and one of the reasons why so much government money remains unspent." "Yes, yes," Mr Balls said, "I agree with everything you say." It was so flattering I didn't understand what he meant. He went on to say something I've entirely forgotten. "Yes, yes," I said, "I agree with everything you say." And on hearing that, he quickly walked away.

YOU VOTE for the Conservatives and they massively increase public spending. You vote for Labour and they stick to Tory spending limits. You vote for a monkey and as soon as he gets in he takes off his costume and talks about public service delivery. It's an unbreakable rule of politics, you just can't trust them to do anything they say, even if it's about bananas.

WAITING LISTS have been spoilt by just one rogue trust, we're told. The number of people on waiting lists is now the lowest since 1996. "A considerable achievement for NHS hospitals and staff," John Hutton said. After six years of Labour saving the NHS, we've just managed to get back to the Tory waiting-list levels.