Opinion – View from the House.

Stephen Byers’ great misfortune is that he was hailed as the brightest young star in Tony Blair’s universe. Some newspapers tagged him a ‘whizz-kid’ – a description that strikes panic among politicians. So the poor fellow took over the reins at the Department of Trade and Industry a year ago with the reputation of a swashbuckling go-getter who would set the place alight. But that didn’t happen. So to suggest the gloss has come off him is to imply that there was gloss there in the first place. Byers is a man of detail and precision, far removed from the big picture metaphor regularly used by the prime minister. He has emerged as dullish, competent and worthy – and possibly promoted – beyond his capacity. But even on that unexciting level his performance has been found wanting. And now he has had to suffer the ignominy of rebukes from the Trade and Industry Select Committee, which enjoys a Labour majority. He was ticked off by Martin O’Neill, the chairman, for releasing reports on high-street prices and on British aid for a controversial Turkish Ilisu dam when the Commons was not sitting. This followed the committee’s rebuke for the DTI’s ‘regrettable habit’ of repeating announcements and dressing up press notices with potentially misleading figures, an allegation the department has denied. Byers was also in trouble for announcing a 10p per hour increase in the minimum wage after signalling that there would be no increase. And he has incurred Blair’s displeasure over his ‘rip-off Britain’ campaign. Byers was ‘used’ before the election by Tony Blair, then leader of the opposition, to leak to selected reporters that Labour is considering severing its 96-year-old links with the trade unions. That demonstrated Blair had total faith in him to perform a delicate task. From that moment onwards, Byers discovered that the term high-flyer invariably preceded his name in the newspapers. He has thus been dogged with a reputation that bears no relation to the facts. He is, in fact, a low-flyer, whose hedge-hopping is not always successful.

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