Spinning off the rails

Sean O'Grady
Saturday 13 October 2001 00:00

Any politician who manages to turn Railtrack from an object of vilification into a victim should ask himself if he might not have risen beyond his abilities. Stephen Byers' initial reaction to the crisis in his department was to hide himself away in a Whitehall cave - that is, until Number 10 advised him to start defending himself over his handling of Railtrack and his decision not to sack his special adviser, Jo Moore, for sending a now notorious e-mail. The signs are that Byers may well have - just - survived this, the worst crisis of his career, although if the post-Railtrack situation deteriorates further he could not be judged secure. It is a remarkable denouement for a man who not so long ago was tipped for the very top.

Byers once described himself as an "outrider" for Tony Blair. Indeed, for much of his career, Byers' main role was to say the unsayable on behalf of his master. Whether it was speaking out for the euro or thinking aloud about breaking Labour's ties with the unions, it would be Byers doing the work. He once grievously upset the left with this Tory-sounding remark: "The reality is that redistribution of wealth is now less important than the creation of wealth." Over a fish supper at a Blackpool restaurant during the 1996 Labour conference, he briefed journalists about the idea of Blair balloting the Labour membership on jettisoning the unions. Byers was then subjected to a two-hour "interview" with officials in his North Tyneside constituency. For such unquestioning loyalty to his leader, Byers has been well rewarded.

The son of an RAF radar technician, Stephen Byers won a place at Chester City grammar school, which he loathed. He left early to take his A-levels at the local college of further education. He studied law at Liverpool Polytechnic, became a lecturer in law at Newcastle Polytechnic and was soon involved in Labour politics. He became MP for North Tyneside in 1992, and his rise under Tony Blair was impressive. Byers made it to the Cabinet in 1998 after only six years in parliament. He was 45.

But he has never quite lived up to his early promise. Now, as the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, he is looking distinctly wobbly. Indeed it is possible that, had we not been in the middle of a war, this particular mod would by now have fallen off his scooter. The destabilising presence of Jo Moore as pillion passenger hasn't helped.

There is something telling about the way that an obsession with news management has undermined this model Blairite. It is unlikely that Moore had Byers' express blessing when, on 11 September, she wrote to colleagues at the department in the following terms: "It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors' expenses?" But she does have a very good claim to know the mind of the Secretary of State.

A chief of press at Labour headquarters until 1997, she too was an enthusiastic moderniser. She left, briefly, to join the private sector as a lobbyist with Westminster Strategy before joining Byers as a special adviser at the DTI, where her private-sector salary, somewhat higher than her pay at the Labour Party, was matched. Moore has worked for Byers ever since. Even though Blair's spokesman has said that the PM does not want to see her sacked for a "single mistake", both she and Byers have spun their way into trouble before.

The last big crisis the pair had to face was the BMW-Rover debacle of March 2000. Byers could not win. Either he knew nothing about the German company's plan to abandon its "English patient", in which case he was being treated with contempt; or he was sufficiently alert to know about it but failed to do enough to save Rover. In the event, the media strategy seemed to consist of a BMW statement being altered to make it look as though the German company had not alerted Byers to the possible closure of the Longbridge plant some months in advance. It said the BMW chairman had told Byers in December 1999 that unless the Government found a pounds 152m grant, it would have to "reconsider its investment plans for the R30 at Longbridge", the R30 being a much-needed new model.

That meant that Byers could insist the statement proved he was right to believe that only the future of the R30 model was at risk. However, the original BMW document said: "If the structural aid is not approved, the BMW Group has to reconsider its investment plans at Longbridge" - with no reference to the R30, implying the future of the whole plant hung in the balance. There was a storm, but Byers and Moore weathered it.

There are other examples of spin. In December 1999, three days before Christmas, at a time when there is little appetite for political stories, Moore and Byers released a story that could have damaged the Government, the decision to approve export credit guarantees for a Turkish dam project which would see 78,000 Kurds displaced. More recently, the attempt this summer to draw career civil servants into discrediting Bob Kiley, the Commissioner of London Transport, confirms that aggressive spinning was a way of life for Moore and Byers.

The other factor that did for Byers, both in the Rover and the Railtrack affairs, was his poor grasp of business. He seemed happier in Opposition, mouthing slogans such as "the majority of inward investment comes from foreign investors making rich pickings from what's left of British industry". A professional politician, Byers' experience outside politics has been confined to a long stint in the "polyocracy" - the 15 years he spent as a law lecturer at Newcastle Poly combined naturally with a seat on the local council.

Like other New Labour figures, he has a hard-left pedigree. In the early 1980s, Byers supported Militant and Bennism. By the time he had risen to be deputy leader of North Tyneside council in 1986, Neil Kinnock had begun the purge of the Trots and Byers became a scourge of his old friends. It put "steel in my backbone", said Byers. His efforts attracted the attention of a like-minded local MP, Tony Blair.

As one of Blair's young meteors, Byers was sometimes offered up as evidence that New Labour has perfected the science of cloning. There is some shared DNA with the leader. They are of the same generation - they were born within a month of each other in 1953. Like Blair, Byers has a partner who is a lawyer; like Blair he has a seat in the North-east and is a beneficiary of the regional Labour "machine"; like Blair he even has a modernising "twin" or rival - Alan Milburn rather than Gordon Brown. Unlike Blair, however, Byers is unremarkable as a public speaker and is unimpressive on television.

Byers' political skills are, though, not quite as weak as his gaffe-laden history would suggest. Despite his recent travails, he has shown himself to be presentationally astute and capable of attention to detail. Once, irritated by a local newspaper's use of an out-of-date picture of him, he sent it two photographs of himself, one smiling and one serious so that they could use the appropriate version, depending on the nature of the accompanying story. He even shaved off his "soup strainer" moustache just after Peter Mandelson got rid of his in 1995.

We should discount the fact that he is a Minister for Transport who cannot drive; at least one illustrious predecessor, Barbara Castle, couldn't either. He was unlucky to be caught out by a simple multiplication test on a radio show when he was schools minister. One suspects quite a few members of the House of Commons would have to think for a moment or two about what seven times eight makes (it's not 54, as Byers said). He showed some prescience in telling Tony Blair "I don't want the Dome" when he took over from Peter Mandelson at Trade and Industry. When he decided to back the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and blocked Rupert Murdoch's bid to take over Manchester United, he did himself and the government more good than harm - there are indications that Mandelson might have been more willing to approve it. And he certainly fared no worse or better than the others in the Cabinet crisis team during the petrol protests in 2000, a low point in the Blair Government's fortunes.

So Stephen Byers is no fool, even if he sometimes finds himself looking foolish. He was regarded as a successful minister for schools, although even then there were allegations that he argued with a press officer, Jonathan Haslam, over inserting "political" sentiments into a departmental press release. Byers' first Cabinet job, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, didn't really test him because his main function there was to act as an informal pair of Blairite eyes and ears deep in the Brown empire.

Byers' time at Trade and Industry and at Transport has been blighted by the fact that he is not so much pro-business or anti-business as bewildered by it. But there is more to it than that. Byers might have been able to transcend that weakness if he had been able to give his departments a sense of purpose and, crucially, if he possessed more of that essential requirement of political success at the highest level - judgement. He should have recognised that when a spin doctor becomes a story then it is time for her to move on. More riskily, he might also have made it clear that the Treasury too was involved in the renationalisation of Railtrack, and forced the Chancellor to take his due share of the blame.

Even before his latest problems, Byers had fallen back in the presumptive next-leader-but-one succession to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown/David Blunkett. With "twin" Alan Milburn's fortunes perilously tied up with the NHS, both must watch Estelle Morris and Charles Clarke make faster progress and enjoy a markedly better press. Byers should not be dismayed. He might like to compare, say, the calm way Morris executed her U-turn over student fees with his handling of Railtrack, a change that could also have been popular with the party and the public.

Byers has not fallen off his scooter quite yet, but he is finding himself relegated from being an outrider for the Blair project to its slipstream.


Born: Stephen John Byers 13 April 1953 in Wolverhampton.

Parents: son of Robert Byers, an RAF radar technician, and Tryphena Mair Jones.

Family: Unmarried. His partner, Jan, is a lawyer. He has one son from a previous relationship when Byers was a 17-year-old student.

Education: Buxton County Primary School; Chester City Grammar School; Chester College of Further Education; Liverpool Polytechnic.

Academic career: Senior Lecturer in law at Newcastle Polytechnic, 1975-92.

Political career: Joined the Labour Party in 1974; Member of North Tyneside Council 1980-92 (Chairman of Education 1982-85, Deputy Leader of the Council 1985-92); Member of Parliament for Wallsend 1992-97 (moved to the Tyneside North constituency 1997); Opposition Whip 1994-95; spokesman on education and employment 1995-97; Minister of State for Education 1997-98; Chief Secretary to the Treasury 1998; Trade and Industry Secretary 1999.

Publications: Rates and Unemployment (1982).

Nickname: Known as "The Walking Pager".

Hobbies: Supports Newcastle United Football Club, cinema, walking.

He says: "The best way to address inequality and social exclusion is to create a more affluent, more successful Britain"; "Conceit may puff a man up but it can never prop him up" (to John Patten in 1993 quoting John Ruskin).

They say: "Byers doesn't ring a bell at all, so I suppose he can't have stood out." Peter Byatt, his former language master at Chester City Grammar School.

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