The Sketch: Giving Railtrack shareholders £300m is actually good for the taxpayer

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The Independent Online

Well that wasn't very funny. Actually, it was horrible. Children might have been watching. How careful are you about what your kids get into in the afternoon? We had Patricia Hewitt announcing massive job losses in the Post Office, with more to come, and blaming it on the Tories. And we had Stephen Byers doing a neck-breaking U-turn by offering to reimburse Railtrack shareholders from public funds, a course of action he has loudly, not to say boastfully, rejected ever since he put Railtrack into administration. The Prime Minister rejected it also, putting an extra coat of gloss on his halo. And many people believed them. The Labour backbench, for instance. They believed the Prime Minister! What slow learners they are.

That many-headed monster had turned out to defend Mr Byers so recently. Their howling down of the shadow transport minister had saved Mr Byers' bacon last time (hence the recent vote on fox hunting). But they were few, so very few, yesterday. On the back two benches above the gangway, a mere six.

All, except Hugh "Gizzajob" Bayley, hostile.

First, the Post Office. Ms Hewitt has the soothing manner of a dental nurse working with schools; she has the teeth to go with the job. She heads the department of Trade and Industry. She certainly knows more about dental hygiene than trade or industry. She kept telling the Commons, in her uniquely irritating way, that the Government has given the Post Office commercial freedom. "The party opposite doesn't understand the idea of commercial freedom!"

But the Post Office cannot, as Labour's Bob Cryer pointed out, even put up the price of a stamp (they lose money on every private letter they deliver). Nor can they restrict their deliveries to uneconomic areas. That's commercial freedom, according to the dental nurse.

Shadow spokesman John Whittingdale excelled himself. While that's a lot easier than it sounds, it was indicative of a Tory revival. They loved every minute. They're going to love even more stages two and three (30,000 and 50,000 will go; this isn't yet common knowledge).

Stephen Byers stood up, and old Labour aged visibly. The transport secretary's defence – probably the single most cynical political manouevre the Sketch has been privileged to witness – was offered with the same bland assurance that he makes any statement in the House.

Railtrack shareholders are to be paid off on condition they accept a £300m bribe paid for by the taxpayer. Mr Byers has been advised that he must on no account be taken to court by shareholders for he would be skinned by forensic experts, his head set on a pike and his heart eaten by dogs. The upside for the Government in this is narrowly exceeded by the downside.

But how to explain it to the backbench? This is where the Sketch fell backwards, reaching for its brains. The money is to be paid for the benefit of the travelling public in order to get Railtrack out of administration more quickly. It is, ultimately, a £300m benefit for the taxpayer.

If you believe that you'll believe anything. But of course, no one any longer does. Not even Tony Blair.