View from the House – 11 March

Against the odds, Stephen Byers is turning into a politician worth watching.

In his two months in Victoria Street, the trade secretary hasn’t just mastered the job – that was the least expected of this assiduous reader of the red boxes – he has begun to inject a personal note into speeches and briefings. It would be going too far to suggest there’s anything like a Byers-ite philosophy emerging or that he’s not, as ever, a very keen student of what Number Ten wants.

But there has lately been the unmistakable sound of an ambitious minister gently rattling his cage.

Take his speech last month saying ‘wealth creation is more important than wealth redistribution’.

On the face of it, here was a clear statement of New Labour faith: what Maggie taught us is that unless business is successful there won’t be the wherewithal for taxing and spending. It’s been said, if not quite as forthrightly, by prime minister and chancellor; Peter Mandelson said it more than once in not dissimilar terms. But Byers went on. It is because there is a ‘fundamental role for business at the heart of this government’ that there is also a fundamental role for his department.

That is a message (you don’t need a spin-doctor to tell you) addressed firmly at Gordon Brown and the Treasury.

Then, last week, the trade secretary promised to publish a list of all his civil servants’ phone numbers, with a view to allowing the business community to get directly in touch. Hardly a major innovation, you might say. Didn’t Michael Heseltine propose the self-same thing? But again, the subtext was more important than the substance: this was a message addressed to Jack Cunningham, the cabinet enforcer who is shortly going to publish a white paper on better government. The Byers claim is that he has already been there, done that.

Take that, together with DTI plans to beef up trading standards enforcement (which cuts across number ten’s overall responsibility for deregulation), and you could paint a picture of a young man on the make. And making it.

David Walker writes for the Guardian.

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