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Although the timing of Stephen Byers's resignation took everyone by surprise, the thing which still mystifies everybody at Westminster is why it took so long.

For weeks now, Byers has been not so much a lame-duck as dead in the water.

His reputation was in tatters and his judgement was flawed. There was absolutely no possibility that he could restore his reputation and be regarded as a competent, let alone reliable, minister again.

But the problems which bore down on him also reflected badly on the prime minister’s judgement. Byers, was handpicked by Blair as someone to be groomed for stardom.

‘At the time, he was the blue-eyed boy. He could do no wrong,’ said one Labour official. ‘As time went on, it seemed as though he could do no right. That does not do wonders for Blair’s judgement and assessment of people.’

The timing, therefore, of the resignation may have more to do with protecting Blair’s back than with anything else.

The House of Commons is in recess and the prime minister is not due to answer questions until 12 June. By this time, events will have moved on.

Thus the PM will have avoided what could have been a humiliating scrutiny of his alleged lack of judgement in backing Byers.

Even some Labour MPs were beginning to look distinctly uncomfortable in the Commons as Blair continued to defend Byers.

Almost everything he touched seemed to turn to dross. But all the time he appeared to try to bluster his way out of trouble.

I expect that even he is now wondering why he did not sack Jo (‘bury the bad news’) Moore the moment the spin-doctor’s gaffe came to light.

Had he done so, he might have avoided much of the trouble which was to beset him later.

And his handling of the ‘resignation’ of Martin Sixsmith was a model of how not to do it. It almost defies belief how a cabinet minister could be so utterly stupid.

  • Chris Moncrieff, a senior political analyst at PA News.

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