The Sketch: As corpses go, Mr Transport gives an excellent impression of being alive

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The Independent Online

It's marvellous how rapidly opinion-formers reform their opinions. As Stephen Byers stood up at the dispatch box, no one within the beltway thought he'd survive. Then an hour and a half later, he was walking into Number 10 accompanied by his Permanent Secretary, S*r R****d M*****m, for prime-ministerial bonding.

He was done for. Dead Man Walking. Even Alan Milburn, Pinky to Mr Byers's Perky, thought so – he spent health questions looking quite puckish, perhps at the thought of what was to come (there's no more subtle pleasure in political life than to see your best friend fall off a roof).

The situation was summarised by the department's Permanent Secretary. After Mr Byers wrongly announced his communications director had resigned, Sir Richard Mottram observed, with the precision civil service mandarins are known for: "We're all f****d. I'm f****d. You're f****d. The whole department's f****d. It's been the biggest cock-up ever and we're all completely f****d."

What precisely, as Tam Dalyell asked in the House, would cause a senior civil servant to say such a thing? Mr Byers airily said that Sir Richard was frustrated at the lack of trust in the department. How his backbench roared. We have to hand it, for once, to Hilary Armstrong. The chief whip had packed the benches front and back to support the Secretary of State for Transport. Gordon Brown, David Blunkett, Robin Cook and even Tessa, chic by Jowell with Nick Brown.

The government claque is an ugly thing when roused, and Ms Armstrong had cleverly brought down these parliamentary orcs to the second bench to do their foul work.

But there were many other reasons for Sir Richard's summary, including Mr Byers's previous form for evasions, half-truths, bent truths and outright untruths.

On the Jonathan Dimbleby programme, Mr Byers said that he had no responsibility for personnel matters, but if Miss Moore had to go, "it would be good if Martin Sixsmith went as well". In those two contiguous statements we can see that, even when Mr Byers is telling the truth, he is lying. This is ability of a very high order.

Tory questioners persistently missed this and other open goals – not least the fact that Mr Byers had admitted his problems with the truth in his opening statement: "But if my answers on the programme gave the impression that I did not put forward a view or make clear my views to others inside and outside the department, that is something I regret and I welcome this opportunity to clarify matters."

Given that we live in a time of pygmies, it was a great parliamentary occasion. In front of a packed house the minister boiled his defence down to two constructions, almost certainly false but equally certainly irrefutable: Mr Sixsmith had accepted he'd resign but the terms hadn't been worked out; and the whole matter was instigated by the Permanent Secretary.

But why did Jo Moore resign? She hadn't done anything wrong. Why didn't Mr Byers resign? He's always doing something wrong.

No, Mr Byers won't resign, nor will he be reshuffled. On the Nietzschean principle – that which does not kill you makes you stronger – he is looking much better than Mr Milburn might have liked.

Simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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