At a time when public disaffection with the political process is highlighted by yet another disappointing turnout in the local elections, it is doubly depressing to find a case of a politician conforming to the public's worst expectations. And yet this is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the position Stephen Byers finds himself in again.
In February The Independent broke the story that the National Air Traffic Control Service (Nats) was in financial crisis and would have to be bailed out by the Government to the tune of £30m. In his report, Barrie Clement, our transport editor, added that Mr Byers "sold 46 per cent of Nats to British airlines last year – despite advice from the Civil Aviation Authority [CAA] that the business plan and financial structure were too fragile to withstand a traumatic event". A traumatic event was, of course, precisely what occurred on 11 September. Mr Byers, however, vehemently denied our story in a series of telephone calls to the editor of this newspaper.
Yet on Wednesday, appearing before a parliamentary select committee, Mr Byers's junior minister, David Jamieson, and a senior civil servant admitted that the Transport Department was indeed given official warnings about the financial viability of the beleaguered National Air Traffic Service. The Secretary of State for Transport has always said publicly that the CAA did not argue against the sale of Nats shares. That is true, but not the point. Now we know: The Independent was right, and Mr Byers was wrong.
Perhaps we should not be shocked. After all, Mr Byers has some form, having been economical with the truth when he denied, on the Jonathan Dimbleby programme, that he had intervened in the dismissal of his spin doctor Jo Moore. Indeed, the case of Ms Moore's notorious e-mail about burying bad news on 11 September – also broken by this newspaper – should have alerted us to two aspects of Mr Byers's character. First, his willingness to allow his staff to dissemble and to spin their way out of trouble; and second, his own poor judgement when he failed to sack her immediately he learned of her actions. But, then again, he had also been less than frank during his time as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in his account of his talks with senior BMW management in the Rover affair.
Mr Byers is, then, not shocking so much as deeply depressing. While not personally corrupt, he has done his best to corrupt what little faith the voters may have left in the political process. The Government cannot have things both ways; they cannot complain about voter apathy when ministers routinely spin and obfuscate their way out of trouble and everything is subordinated to the demands of political expediency.
And that does not confront the issue of Mr Byers's competence. His ministerial career has been a long succession of misjudgements. That he has managed to hang on to his seat at the cabinet table can only be explained by his hound-like faithfulness to Tony Blair and his zeal for the nostrums of New Labour. Surely the Prime Minister isn't that desperate for support? Mr Blair should, at his next reshuffle, try to find a job more suitable for a man of Mr Byers's talents.
Shortly before he was elected, the Prime Minister said: "Changing the way we govern, and not just changing our government, is no longer an optional extra for Britain. So low is public esteem for politicians and the system we operate that there is now little authority for us to use unless and until we first succeed in regaining it."
It is time to act on those words.Reuse content