Entering parliament as MP for Wallsend in 1992, Byers quickly recognised the power of the National Audit Office and its Commons ally, the Public Accounts Committee.
Armed with NAO-sourced facts and figures, Byers made life hell for several ministers during the last few years of John Major’s government. In the process he made a name for himself and positioned himself nicely as a candidate for a junior post in the first Blair government.
Equally importantly he helped raise the profile of the NAO. MPs taking potshots at the government by calling for an NAO inquiry are now ten-a-penny. But Byers was among the first to realise the weight that the independent opinion of an accountant or auditor can bring to a political argument.
In office Byers continued to rely on the profession to be seen to be acting above politics. The BMW-Rover debacle may have helped shortened Byers’ ministerial career, but it helped build the reputation of Deloittes’ corporate finance arm, brought in to pick up the pieces following the German carmaker’s retreat.
Then there was Railtrack. Despite moving from the DTI to transport, Byers continued his relationship with accountants. Clandestine negotiations with Ernst & Young that resulted in the effective renationalisation of Railtrack played well on the backbenches but not in the City. Indeed it sowed the seeds of his downfall.
‘We are also about delivering a service,’ Byers once told Accountancy Age. ‘Whether it is health, education or small business, it’s what we can deliver that is important.’
Given his reliance on accountants throughout his ministerial career, it is a lesson he could well have picked up from the profession itself.
‘We need to rethink priorities,’ urged a contributor to the BBC’s Today programme poll of the professions last week. ‘Accountancy used to be a tool of management, now its a God.’
The comment spoke volumes about the survey which found that, post-Enron, accountants are only marginally more respected as a profession than car dealers, estate agents and government ministers.
Of the 92 professions mentioned in the survey, accountants came in at a lowly 83, just ahead of company directors at 84 and car dealers at 85.
The news, however, will be cold comfort to the likes of Stephen Byers. The least respected slot went to MPs.