Sacking spin doctors is not enough to restore a credible transport policy

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The Independent Online

A sacking in time would have saved the Prime Minister a lot of trouble and Martin Sixsmith his job. This has been a bad week for the Government, but it was all avoidable. Above all, if Tony Blair had insisted on Jo Moore's resignation last year, he would have been in a stronger position to weather the hail of charges of financial sleaze which has also battered him this week.

She was infamous before this week as the author of the most vivid sentence to come out of this Government, in her e-mail of 11 September: "It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury."

By contrast, the incidents which led to the double resignation of Ms Moore and Mr Sixsmith seem trivial – but they speak volumes of the weaknesses of the Prime Minister and his government.

For the benefit of those coming late to the detail of the latest instalment, the essential facts are these. Officials at the transport department discussed when to publish figures showing that rail services in Britain are not very good. The civil servant in charge of the press office, Martin Sixsmith, thought that Jo Moore, the political adviser to Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State, was suggesting yesterday, the day of Princess Margaret's funeral. An inaccurate version of Mr Sixsmith's memo, warning Ms Moore that he would not allow such an attempt to "bury" more bad news, was leaked to the press.

This was denounced as "fiction" by Ms Moore; by the Prime Minister's spokesman Godric Smith; and by the cabinet minister assigned to clear-up duties in the House of Commons that day, Robin Cook. But it was officially admitted later that day that the gist of the misreported memo was accurate. Ms Moore continues to insist that she did not deliberately suggest publication on the day of the royal funeral; her detractors (anonymously) continue to insist that she did.

As Mr Byers rather nonchalantly put it, there had been a "breakdown of trust" between Ms Moore and Mr Sixsmith. Once it led to the Prime Minister's spokesman misleading journalists and a cabinet minister misleading the Commons, it became inevitable that both officials should go. But the Secretary of State speaks as if this were occurring on another planet, not in his own department, for which he was responsible. This should draw attention to Mr Blair's weakness in failing to sack Mr Byers, who is not up to his job.

Of course, on a close-up view, this is a story which symbolises the Prime Minister's dependence on the techniques of media management to impress public opinion. Political or special advisers were introduced by Harold Wilson to help ministers push radical policy options through a conservative civil service, but under this government they have too often become personal press officers for their ministers, on the public payroll.

But let us look beyond the world of spin, beyond a story about the timing of "unhelpful" announcements which ended in a super-unhelpful announcement being made at 5pm on the day of a royal funeral, and just before a parliamentary recess.

In the world of substance, the Department of Transport matters. The state of the railways and the absence of any strategy for road congestion are among this government's greatest policy failures. The dogfight between officials reinforces the image of a dithering Prime Minister too dependent on media management to devote himself seriously to the delivery of better public services.

But the real story is that Mr Byers shows no grasp of the scale of the policy challenge. Sacking the quarrelling spin doctors may have been necessary, but it is not a sufficient condition for refocusing people's attention on the issues that matter to them. For that, Mr Byers should be asked to stand aside.

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