He was hooked. He was landed. But he barely had to slither to get away

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The Independent Online

John Prescott told us about "eelier pieces of work". He meant earlier pieces of work. But eelier was a valuable addition to the political lexicon.

There is certainly no eelier piece of work than Stephen Byers. In a government of eels, the Secretary of State for Transport is the eeliest.

I know a bit about eels. In another life we used to catch them along the lazy river. One was landed, unhooked and left on a rock, one roasting afternoon. When I put it in the water at the end of the day to rinse it, it wriggled out of my hands and swam away. Exactly the same happened in the Commons yesterday. Mr Byers was hooked and landed at the dispatch box.

He wriggled away, hardly having to wriggle. It was more a slither than a wriggle. Theresa May was unable cut him into slices, the only known way of dealing with eels of his eeliness.

Long sigh.

Chris Mullin spoke up for the minister with the calculated weariness he does so well. It wasn't as if the Secretary of State had been caught in a Paris hotel with three Saudi arms dealers, he said. It wasn't as if ... but you can fill in the rest. He said it was "small beer". Is it? I don't agree.

Mr Byers had said on television: "I had absolutely nothing to do with and no discussions about Mr Sixsmith's departure."

He acknowledged the lie later to the House. At least, he said: "If my answers on the programme gave the impression that I did not put forward a view, that is obviously something I regret."

Yesterday he noted that the Opposition hadn't brought the relevant documents into the House. His defence was devolved to those distant texts. Time and again he told members to look at what he'd said on 26 February, look at what the permanent secretary had said on the 25th, referring to the events of the 15th, and look at the Agreed Statement from Tuesday. Confused? Of course you are.

Patrick McLoughlin quoted Mr Byers from Hansard. "As I said earlier, Martin Sixsmith offered his resignation, which was accepted on the 16 February." This was more than a week after the event, and enough time to know whether or not Mr Sixsmith was a civil servant or not (remember he is a civil servant to this day).

When the minister started to repeat that members should look at what he'd said earlier, Mr McLoughlin threw the book at him. It landed on the table that carries the dispatch boxes. "Odder! Odder!" the Speaker cried, correctly for once.

When Mr Byers isn't lying outright he deals in an interpretative freestyle that would amaze the most implacable deconstructionist. He can torture the text, even his text, to make it say what he wants it to.

Does this matter outside Parliament? As a Liberal Democrat pointed out, Mr Byers is currently falsifying enormous equations on Railtrack, the Tube, and air traffic control. The City has responded: "Everything to do with trust and the Government has to be repriced."

So Mr Mullin is wrong. This is not small beer. The Byers premium will run to many billions of pounds.