View from the House - Chris Moncrieff
Stephen Byers, the new Trade and Industry Secretary, will not let the department – as so often happened in the past – play second fiddle to the Treasury.
He will, like his flamboyant predecessor, Peter Mandelson, strive to transform it into the powerhouse at the centre of government, rather than a poor relation on the sidelines.
Byers is in danger of breaking all speed records for political promotions.
He entered parliament in 1992, with an unhelpful background as a left-wing militant sympathiser.
Yet, within months of Blair’s right-wing (in Labour terms) government winning power, he was in the Cabinet, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury – the job John Major once said was the toughest in any government.
Meanwhile, he jettisoned his militant tendencies and became, according to one admirer, ‘more Blairite than Tony Blair himself’. This, plus his North-East connections, automatically puts Byers in the magic circle of ministers.
Unlike Mandelson, Byers does not need the oxygen of publicity to achieve his political ends. He has reached his present eminence with his name still barely known outside Westminster, and will achieve the same, but without a roll of drums.
His first big decision will be whether to allow the BSkyB bid for Manchester United to go ahead. He will preside over the Competitiveness white paper, (Mandelson’s key achievement), and will have to make the tricky decision on the planned link between British Airways and American Airlines.
His astonishing rise has not been without hiccups. In opposition, he privately briefed journalists that Labour would sever union links if they kicked up rough over pay. He later denied it, but it was widely thought to be a deliberate leak, blessed by Blair himself.
Then, as an education minister during a numeracy campaign, he was asked to multiply eight by seven. He said 54.
But those promise to be no more than blips. He is not known as the hush puppy of Westminster for nothing.