If Mr Byers will not sack his spin doctor, he is unfit to remain a minister

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Even at this distance, four days on from The Independent breaking the story, Stephen Byers' arrogance is hard to get used to. How could anyone think that his special adviser Jo Moore could stay in her job after reading the memo that she sent to the head of his department's press office? She suggested using the terrorist attacks in the United States as cover to "bury" news that "we" did not want prominently reported.

This was not just grossly insensitive. Of course press officers manage the timing of press releases to try to play down some issues and to promote others. It is one of the responsibilities of journalists to try to counter such manipulation. But to put such a tactic in writing was crass. It would have been just as improper to have made such a suggestion verbally. Even at the lowest level of political calculation, its sheer tastelessness ensured that if it were made public, it could only damage the Government.

The situation is much worse than that now, however. Ms Moore may not be a traditional civil servant, bound by long-standing rules of political neutrality, but she is a public servant, whose substantial salary is paid for by the taxpayer. We, the citizens of this country, are therefore paying her to conceal information from us. That is not what special advisers are for. Harold Wilson invented them in 1975 for reasons that have often been caricatured as "politicising the civil service", but that were essentially honourable. He felt that the tradition of civil-service neutrality gave too much licence in practice to conservatism, with a small "c". He had a point: civil servants still take refuge too easily in the safety of consensus, and in the worst cases obstruct policies that they do not like. Special advisers were intended to support ministers in pushing their party's programme through the treacle of bureaucratic inertia – a legitimate democratic purpose.

What they should not do – and indeed are not permitted to do by their contracts – is to use their position for party-political media management. Sometimes the boundary between party advantage and implementing party policy can be blurred. But it is still possible to overstep the mark. Earlier this year, for example, Alun Evans, the Department of Transport's communications director, was told by Ms Moore to release sensitive information about Mr Kiley. Mr Evans declined, arguing that Ms Moore was trying to use him for party political purposes. Ms Moore told Mr Byers of his refusal and Mr Evans was moved to another job. That was wrong.

Mr Moore's e-mail strayed even further into dangerous territory. It is depressing that Ms Moore herself is so morally compromised that she cannot see that, but she is only important in that she acts with the authority of her Secretary of State. What is astonishing is that Mr Byers did not see immediately that this was a sackable offence. Nor does the tale of the unexpected end there, because the Prime Minister then decided, on Tuesday, when The Independent published Ms Moore's e-mail of 11 September, to stand by Mr Byers' decision to stand by her decision not to resign.

This is unacceptable. If Mr Byers cannot see that Ms Moore has committed a sackable offence, then he is unfit to remain in Government. His handling of the renationalisation of Railtrack last weekend was inept. Indeed, it may have been a serious enough failing to justify demotion in the next Cabinet reshuffle. But his refusal to dismiss Ms Moore shows a cynicism that is deeply damaging not just to this Government but to the profession of politics.

The most generous interpretation of Tony Blair's conduct is that he has been distracted by international affairs. The Prime Minister deserves much praise for his efforts, but he may have accepted Mr Byers' argument without giving it sufficient thought.

It is nevertheless worrying that Mr Blair, however hard-pressed, did not recognise Mr Byers' stance as an insult to his allegedly elevated view of the moral purpose of politics. Again, even by reference to base Machiavellian calculation alone, Ms Moore must go. Mr Blair promised that after the election Labour would be less obsessed with spin. He knows that the perception that his is a "Government of Spin" tarnishes nearly everything he touches. Yet how can he complain about such a perception when his own actions provide evidence that it is accurate?

Unless Mr Blair insists that Ms Moore leaves her post, the voters will rightly conclude that the cynicism revealed in her e-mail goes right to the top. It is time for Mr Blair to act. Until he does, his Transport Secretary will remain a lame duck.