Triumph of the crows
The downfall of UK transport secretary Stephen Byers will benefit nobody.
The resignation of UK transport secretary Stephen Byers was no surprise. Since his refusal to sack his political adviser Jo Moore in October 2001, over her 11 September ‘good opportunity to bury bad news’ email, petty scandal has followed petty scandal.
The list of things Byers is supposed to have done wrong is almost too tedious to bear repeating. Did he or didn’t he threaten rail regulator Tom Winsor, saying that he had the authority to take over Railtrack? Did he or didn’t he force the resignation of his press chief Martin Sixsmith in February 2002? And had Sixsmith really resigned when Byers told the House of Commons he had?
And the final nail in the coffin: did Byers authorise porn baron Richard Desmond to buy the Express newspaper group, or had he just followed the advice of the Office of Fair Trading?
But the witch-hunt of Stephen Byers had little to do with what he did or didn’t do. ‘Liar Byers’ was a fictional character created by the media, used by the Tories, and finally, as a Guardian/ICM poll showed last week, it had become part of popular folklore. (Byers made a weak attempt to cast off this fictional character in his resignation statement: ‘I am not a liar.’)
For now, we are hearing the crowing of those who have willed his downfall: the giggles of the shadow transport secretary on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme; the victorious ‘Bye bye Byers’ headlines; the giddy delight of Andrew Marr on Newsnight; Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘I’m pleased he’s finally gone’.
But when the euphoria wears off, some might realise just how unsatisfying the whole affair has been – because the thing about sleaze scandals is that nobody benefits.
The Tories won’t have improved their political standing, or made anybody trust them more. Duncan Smith and co fed parasitically on the media’s image of Byers, rather than making political points of their own.
The media are delighted that Byers resigned, but what will they talk about now he’s gone? When nothing much happens in the world of politics, attacking Liar Byers at least gave an appearance of debate and controversy. As was the case with Labour ministers Peter Mandelson and Keith Vaz, when a sleaze demon is slain the media immediately goes looking for another.
In broader terms, these scandals feed public cynicism and suspicion, not just of individual politicians but of politics in general. A recent survey by the Today programme found that politicians were the least respected of professions. These witch-hunts compound, rather than appease, such cynicism.
‘By remaining in office I damage the government’, said Byers in his resignation statement. This was true – but resigning will be far more damaging in the long run. Every time the government gives in, every time it agrees to sacrifice a minister to appease the crows, it will be worse next time around. It will be more difficult for the next Byers/Mandelson/Vaz to stick it out.
Both Byers himself and prime minister Tony Blair defended his record as transport minister. ‘When it comes to important policy questions, Steve has taken the right decisions’, said Blair. ‘I stand by the major policy decisions I have taken’, said Byers. This made the fact of Byers’ resignation even worse – he resigned to stem criticism of the government, not because he thought he had made major mistakes.
All of this presents problems for the government. It cannot have elected ministers resigning just because people talk; it cannot conduct purges by such arbitrary standards. In order to run a government and make policy decisions, politicians need to be able to hold it together. Blair and Byers realised that – which is why they stuck out the Liar Byers scandals for so long.
I will shed no tears for Byers – he was a genuinely loyal Blairite: bland, technocratic, pragmatic. British politics won’t miss him a bit. What is worrying is not the loss of Byers, but the spectacle of his downfall.
This sleazy obsession is a scandal, by Mick Hume
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