Opinion – View from the House.

Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary, has been banging his drum in the most ferocious manner about banks which threatened to double- charge for withdrawals from cash machines. This was after senior bankers backed down in the face of government anger over these plans. The language he used was uncharacteristically vivid and macho for a man who – sadly for him – has been earning a reputation as one of the most ineffectual and tame cabinet ministers around. There are widespread suspicions at Westminster that Alastair Campbell, the prime minister’s official spokesman, had taken Byers aside and fed him a few juicy phrases. These suspicions are gaining ground. If you recall, Ron Davies, the former Welsh secretary, has admitted the expression ‘moment of madness’, referring to the Clapham Common incident, was not his phrase, but put into his mouth by Campbell. Davies now regrets using it. The impression around Westminster is that Byers, who had only a few days before his cash machine outburst suffered serious embarrassment over the legislation to crack down on the privatised utilities, needed help from 10 Downing Street. It should not be forgotten that Byers entered the Cabinet as a high-flyer and is now reduced to hedge-hopping. He came unstuck when he disclosed that he had removed the clauses on the water and telecommunications industries from the Utilities Bill. It now just deals with gas and electricity. This made a nonsense of his earlier pledge that the Bill would squeeze ‘fat cat’ utility chiefs, toughen up regulations and slash bills.It was looking as though he had caved in to the intense lobbying by the telecommunications industry, having already lost the turf war with deputy prime minister John Prescott over whose department should regulate the water industry. Byers has already been publicly rebuked by a Labour-dominated Commons committee for unveiling his policies to the press rather than to parliament. But if he believes aggressive language will extricate him from his present pickle, he is mistaken. Remember what the Bard himself said: ‘All sound and fury signifying nothing …’

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