Greasy Pole: Liam Byrne Out Of The Shadows
It will not be found on the notice boards in any of Iain Duncan Smith’s Job Centres nor in the Situations Vacant column of the popular press but a needy job-seeker may be interested in the Labour Party’s search for someone to perform the miracle of reviving their hopes as a validly contesting political party. One who has yet to expose all his talents for this is Liam Byrne who offers a CV which, although defiled by his failure to get things right, includes an impressive history of governmental jobs. Between 2010 and 2013 he was Shadow for four ministerial posts, including the prestigious Chief Secretary to the Treasury. And before then, between 2005 and 2010 he was in charge at eight ministries. Whatever stress he experienced in those jobs his reputation, with one or two embarrassing lapses, endured pretty well. In A Journey Tony Blair described him as one of the ‘…smart, young professionals’ he was able to encourage into Parliament and onto the Greasy Pole. When Blair escaped from those nightmare days of Labour staggering towards the end, management of the dismal chaos known as the British economy passed to Alistair Darling and Byrne was promoted to Chief Secretary. In his account of those times – Back From The Brink – Darling cherished his memory of Byrne: ‘I assumed at first that this was the latest No. 10 attempt to keep an eye on me. I was wrong. Very quickly, Liam became a staunch supporter of my argument against the simplistic “investment versus cuts” narrative. He worked hard to build a credible plan to cut the deficit’.
But overall Byrne’s record is not unblemished. In November 2006 he oversaw a retrospective change in the Immigration Rules designed to ensure that those who had come here under the Higher Skills Migrant Programme were prevented from staying unless they could show that they had earned at least £32,000 a year and had a ‘good knowledge’ of English. This ‘moving of the goalposts’ was denounced by the Parliamentary Joint Commission on Human Rights as ‘clearly incompatible’ with the existing legislation and it was overturned on appeal. The whole affair would not have sat easily with Byrne’s constituency of Birmingham Hodge Hill and its predominantly Asian inner city. The area is classified as having a ‘high percentage’ of people dependent on what Duncan Smith calls ‘benefits’ and a housing situation which rates it as one of the highest in West Midlands for ‘Multiple Deprivation’. This grim picture did not deter Byrne from claiming the maximum MP’s allowance while he moved from one luxury London flat to another – one of which cost £2400 a month in rent – while he looked for somewhere more permanent. During the summer recess he used hotels and claimed £400 a month for food and for service dinners.
In 2006, when he became Minister of State at the Home Office Byrne decided that his staff – his civil servants – would need some firm and comprehensive instructions on the essential details of an efficient organisation. He composed an eleven-page document which he later took with him to other ministries. To begin with, his room should be cleared before he got there in the morning. All briefings should be in large 16 point font. ‘Never put anything to me unless you understand it and can explain it to me in 60 seconds’. Among the rules are some which pointedly reveal much about the true function of government as required by the elements of capitalist society: ‘Money is the root of all progress. Finances are a vital part of the initiation conversations’. And when it comes to an expression of the contempt in which the working people of capitalism are held he orders that ‘Key messages must be set out in ‘big speeches’ and repeated at every, repeat every, opportunity’. Which brings us to the passage about the comforts and security which the minister needs: ‘I am’ he informs them ‘addicted to coffee. I like a cappuccino when I come in, an espresso at 3 pm and soup at 12.30 – 1 pm.’ One MP described it as ‘a briefing note for slaves’. In defence a spokesman for Byrne countered that he is ‘…a highly efficient minister but has become more flexible since then. Some days, he has his soup at 1.30pm’.
In the coalition after the 2010 election Byrne was replaced at the Treasury by the Lib Dem David Laws. In a clumsy attempt to make light of Labour’s rejection Byrne left a brief note: ‘I’m afraid there is no money. Kind regards-and good luck’. But Laws was not amused and publicised the missive so that it was widely interpreted as derisive and contemptuous – which left Byrne ‘haunted’ by his mistake offering a ‘friendly word’ to his successor in their ‘first day in one of the government’s hardest jobs’. Among all this posturing a number of significant facts were neglected. Byrne was not the first Minister at the Treasury to act in that way and it had even become something of a tradition; for example the Tory Reginald Maudling told his successor James Callaghan that he was ‘…sorry to leave it in such a mess, old cock’. And David Laws lasted only 17 days at the Treasury after being exposed by the Parliamentary Standards and Privileges Committee as responsible for ‘…a series of serious breaches of the rules, over a considerable period of time’.
In January, anticipating the election, Byrne conducted a coach tour of supporters through Essex, where he grew up and which then threatened to be UKIP territory. His theme was clear: ‘Ed (Miliband) has very firmly put young people at the core of our election campaign… right now (this country) needs young people’s creativity and optimism as never before…’ But then came the election and soon afterwards, on 14 June 2015 in The Sunday Times he was promoting a different line, in a different tone: ‘…we must be the party of older voters, not just the young… Labour faces a demographic timebomb unless we transform our standing with older voters… if the next Labour leader does not connect with older people – especially older women – then quite simply we will lose again… Let labour’s changes begin’. How often have we suffered this same message from some desolate Labour politician, when their intention is to maintain this same callous way of life?