Alexander Chancellor's Week

More Graves Dug
Feb. 25 2002 2:09 PM

Alexander Chancellor's Week

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It's amazing how long it has taken Jo Moore to resign. It was perfectly obvious to everybody except for Tony Blair and his Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, that her position as Mr Byers' personal spin doctor had become untenable after her e-mail on September 11suggesting this would be a good day on which to "bury" an unpopular announcement about the railways under the rubble of the World Trade Center. Her show of callousness was so spectacularly at odds with the shoulder-to-shoulder spirit that Mr Blair was urging us to show towards the United States that it was almost equivalent to treason. But he decided to let Mr Byers keep her, knowing, I suppose, how pathetically dependent troubled ministers are on the comfort and reassurance that their sycophantic spin doctors provide. Then came this second row over burying another embarrassing transport announcement with the ashes of Princess Margaret. Ms Moore may not have been up to her clandestine grave-digging again, but the whole obscure episode exposed such venomous infighting within Mr Byers' department that she and its information chief, Martin Sixsmith, both had to resign. Or at any rate she did, for Mr Sixsmith now says he didn't resign but was "resigned" without warning by Mr Byers. The whole episode is too futile to be worth trying to understand in any detail, but can be summed up in the admirably succinct words of the Permanent Secretary to the Department, Sir Richard Mottram. "We're all fucked. I'm fucked. You're fucked. The whole department is fucked. It's the biggest cock-up ever. We're all completely fucked," he is reported to have told colleagues, in unusually jaunty language for a civil service mandarin.

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Mr Byers is also clearly fucked and will probably lose his job soon. But what about Tony Blair? Is he fucked too? Not yet. He still enjoys a commanding opinion poll lead. But things aren't looking good for him. The novelist Robert Harris, a former New Labour stalwart, claims to have identified the seeds of his ultimate destruction in his cosying-up to billionaires seeking favours in return for financial contributions to his party. It is one thing for a reformed Labour Party to accept the disciplines of the market. It is quite another for it to appear to love money. That's what Conservatives are supposed to do, yet polls now show that Labour is considered even sleazier than they are in this area. The Economist, in its latest issue, accuses Mr Blair of squandering the trust that has been the secret of his popular success, and says that his widening "sincerity gap" could in the long term "put in danger his very survival". This might not be so if he could at least deliver some noticeable improvements in public services, but so far he has conspicuously failed to do this. Mr Byers has been bleating in vain that we should support his efforts to improve the transport system rather than worry about warfare within his department; but until he has any improvements to show, Britain will continue to have the worst transport system in Europe and we will withhold our applause. I travelled by train to London from Milton Keynes last night, and the train had not only left Birmingham half an hour late but had suffered a failure of its heating system. Passengers were offered free cups of tea to keep them warm, but still felt totally fucked. As the train pulled into Euston Station, a voice on the Tannoy offered apologies and a convoluted explanation for the delay but said it hoped that we had nevertheless "enjoyed our travelling experience". A ripple of contemptuous laughter ran through the train.

Mr Sixsmith, now apparently ousted from his job at Transport, is a curious character. He was a BBC television reporter during the collapse of communism, when he looked so cold and vulnerable—and with such a red nose—when talking to camera in Red Square that British housewives were apparently forever knitting him woolly hats and jumpers. He came across as touchingly innocent and naïve, but now we read that he owns a £2 million house in Knightsbridge and a flat in Paris, so it seems he can look after himself as well as anyone. On the whole, he has been cast as a victim in the Transport affair, but the Mirror today said that, contrary to his own spin, he did in fact plot the defenestration of Jo Moore. The paper furiously accused him of having misled its reporters. But in fact it probably meant to accuse him of something worse. For in its "exposure" of Mr Sixsmith's conspiracy, the Mirror wrote that he "made one mistake—he misled to the Mirror". People don't mislead "to" people, of course. They do, however, lie to them. One can feel the hand of a lawyer here.

Alexander Chancellor is a co-editor of Slate UK.