Simon Carr: The Sketch

Really, Mr Byers, and bin Laden plays the ukelele
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tony Blair has published new evidence condemning Osama bin Laden. Stephen Byers could use the charge sheet to prove the Islamic nutcase was in Sunday school throughout the whole period, sucking sherbet lemons and strumming his ukelele.

Mr Byers is amazing. He neither writhes nor wriggles. He shimmies, almost like Jeeves, from one position to another. He is the epitome of New Labour.

He is calm, he is calculated, he is invisibly ruthless.

The latest rail disaster is so boring that your eye glances over it. Mr Byers (Transport Minister) declared that Railtrack was insolvent and sent the administrators in to run the show. This cheered a lot of people up – and not just Old Labour – because people like the idea of renationalising the most hated company in the country; it appeals to their very British sense of punishment.

In the mêlée, Mr Byers' competence, integrity, fairness and truthfulness (the qualities we so associate with New Labour) have all been called into question. It may yet prove fatal.

Mr Byers comfortably survived Tuesday's debate in Parliament. The Opposition weren't allowed to bring nail guns into the chamber. You need a nail gun to keep Mr Byers in one place.

But he didn't do so well in the Select Committee yesterday, sitting there under the eye of the chairwoman, Gwyneth Dunwoody, she like Madame Defarge knitting shrouds at the foot of the guillotine.

The Prime Minister said in Parliament that the company had been asking the Government for a blank cheque. But it transpired that at the crucial meeting, the company hadn't asked for any money at all, but was proposing to raise very large sums via its own bond issue. (I insist you continue reading this!) A bond issue is a very different thing from demanding a blank cheque from government.

Another thing. Mr Byers repeatedly repeated the repetition that he hadn't threatened the Rail Regulator. Without going into it, the Rail Regulator, one Tom Winsor, a man with a face like the back of an axe, is an official of the industry whose independence is at the very foundation of privatised structures.

If Mr Byers threatened that independence, or offered to overrule him, it would call into question the whole relationship between government and the business world and would make it that much more difficult for such businesses to raise capital (a Byers' Premium, if you will).

Mr Byers knows how important all this is, and has denied threatening Mr Winsor. Questioning from plucky little Anne McIntosh brought out into public the sensationally damaging news (news to us, at any rate) that Mr Byers had prepared emergency legislation to emasculate the regulator, which could be brought to Parliament within 24 hours, if the regulator crossed him.

Mr Byers had said in Parliament: "The regulator himself, in his evidence before the select committee, clearly did not feel threatened in any way."

The rail regulator's evidence to the committee can be read as him not feeling threatened in the same way that Osama bin Laden plays the ukelele.

The fact that Mr Byers had prepared emergency legislation to neutralise Mr Winsor is lethal. He has misled Parliament. Worse, he has misled the Sketch.

An unfathomable crime. Resign!