The Sketch: Blair's there - so Byers must be on fast track out

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The Independent Online

But on a lighter note, culture questions with Richard Desmond. We've recently heard that the publisher of Whopping Whangers, Nobbly Norks and Big, Fat, Hot, Wobbling Bazongas With 50 Per Cent More Fat is an important donor to the Government. It caused a refreshing outbreak of filthy-mindedness in the House.

Everyone enjoyed the talk of the Government's "previous positions" (wurgh!), the "penetration of the market" (orgh!) and the "Keighley Rail Preservation Society" (owooo!) Members contributed from a sedentary position. They're always doing that, it's the only position that doesn't make their legs hurt.

Then there he was, the Prime Minister himself. He'd come in to sit by Stephen Byers to support his Transport Secretary on the Potters Bar crash. This indicates irrevocably (no one can explain quite why) that Mr Byers won't survive the summer reshuffle.

The minister gave a detailed statement down to the nuts on the stretcher bars and the locking bar. This was a sophisticated spin to give us the impression he was dealing only in hard, unarguable, engineering realities.

There was something else he wanted to convey too. "Exercising powers under Section 14(2)(a) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission will tomorrow recommend that the Commission direct the Health and Safety Executive to conduct an immediate formal investigation." What did he mean by that?

He concluded the passage by saying: "A report will be made public as soon as possible." Previously he had said, less equivocally, you'll notice: "This interim report will be published". Suddenly it had become "a report" and it will be published "as soon as possible" (never may be as soon as possible).

Imagine that the report, who knows how, looks likely to embarrass the Government and is pulled, rewritten and released six months later on the eve of a British invasion of Iraq. Mr Byers will be able to say: "Look at what I said in the House on 13 May and you will see that I have been entirely consistent throughout."

Tom Brake landed a real blow. If the crash were linked to the way contractors were managing their casual staff (letting unqualified casual workers do the inspecting), the minister's assertion it was a one-off accident with no general significance wouldn't stand up.

Gwyneth Dunwoody amplified the point, her voice creaking like a coffin lid. She wanted these constant rumours of unskilled, unqualified workers attended to. She wanted accountability. She didn't want to wait for the accident inspectors to report. This must be dealt with at once.

Mr Byers, astonishingly, said he had just been handed a letter faxed by the contractor's chairman, saying that all inspection had been carried out by full-time, fully qualified staff. Had it been any other minister, one would have believed him.

Note: On Friday, a group of senior politicians were having lunch when the news came through. Crash. Casualties. The fellow carrying the information was beaming. The senior man said: "Byers!"

Who were they? It doesn't really matter. What party were they from? That doesn't really matter either. They were politicians. And that is what they're like.

Simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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