Nothing is more humiliating – and dangerous – for a politician than to be come a figure of fun. Whatever remaining shreds of political credibility the Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, might have clung to before his parliamentary performance yesterday have now been lost. In his explanation of who said what to whom about the resignation of his director of communications, Martin Sixsmith, he sounded at times like a parody of the college lecturer he once was, trying to explain the Schleswig-Holstein question to a bored and impatient audience. He was rightly mocked for his efforts.
There are few in the House of Commons, let alone outside, who have the patience to acquire an in-depth understanding of the minutiae of events during those 10 days that shook the Department of Transport in February. We no longer care much about that; we do care, however, that Mr Byers misled Parliament, and he made a poor fist of persuading us that, inadvertent or not, he was remotely sorry. His Conservative shadow, Theresa May, was wise to highlight that lack of remorse in a much more telling attack on Mr Byers than she has managed hitherto.
Mr Byers was at pains yesterday to persuade us that his department has not been distracted from its important work. No doubt, as he says, there are indeed civil servants battling against the epidemic of abandoned cars, and tackling other pressing issues. But the point is that transport is one of the most important areas of "delivery" for the Government, vital to the economic wellbeing of the nation, and it is being headed by a man who has become a national joke. That is why this important department needs fresh leadership.
Whatever he did or did not know about Mr Sixsmith's resignation-that-never-was, Mr Byers' reputation is now beyond redemption. Mr Blair has been loyal to his friend, although not loyal enough to sit beside him on the front bench yesterday, and the Chancellor too was notable by his absence. But Mr Blair's past loyalty has not been rewarded. It is time that he brought the Byers saga to an end.