Ed Howker

Exclusive: how Byers’ lobbying emails dump him and Adonis in it

Exclusive: how Byers' lobbying emails dump him and Adonis in it
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Stephen Byers is in a bind. Desperate to salvage some credibility following the Channel 4 Dispatches sting in which he claimed to be a "cab for hire" by lobbyists who were prepared to pay between £3,000 and £5,000 for his Westminster contacts, he referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards at the start of this week. Mr. Byers is sure that his comments, broadcast on Monday, will not constitute a breach of Parliamentary rules. And, I suspect, some of his defence will come in the form of the clutch of retractions he sent to the production company posing as lobbyists before broadcast. He should not be too sure. Coffee House has now seen Mr. Byers correspondence and there are a number of problems with it.

In total he sent four emails to the production company and made one phone call. The first email, sent from his blackberry just a few hours after the meeting on the 23rd February, was some distance from a retraction:

"Good to meet you today. Do get in touch if you have any further questions. Best wishes, Stephen"

The next day he emails again. This time the line has changed:

"Really good to meet you yesterday, I've been reflecting on our discussion and I'm afraid I completely overstated the part I played in trying to secure changes to the way in which government deals with issues. In reality I have not been engaged with lobbying ministers here in the UK. My statements yesterday may have given the opposite impression and I would like to take this opportunity to withdraw them. Given my lack of experience in this area it may well be the case that I am not the appropriate person to carry out the work you were thinking of. No doubt you will wish to give this further thought. No doubt this clarifies further matters and I am pleased to have set the record straight with you. If you have any other questions or would like to discuss it further please don't hesitate to get in touch. Best wishes, Stephen."

Later that afternoon, presumably worried, Byers then emails again, but what he says next is bound to give cause for concern to the Parliamentary Commissioner:

"As I said in my earlier email and in my follow-up phone call I felt it was important to make you aware that I don't have any experience of lobbying UK government ministers on behalf of commercial interests. In the context of our discussion on Tuesday (23rd February) this means that I have not spoken to Andrew Adonis, Hilary Benn, or Peter Mandelson about the matters I mentioned. I'm sorry that I indicated otherwise, but on reflection wanted you to be aware of any lack of expertise in this area before you speak to your board in the US about a shortlist..."

It is notable that even at this stage Mr. Byers had not withdrawn himself from the selection process for the lobbying firm but that's not what's really significant. What matters more is that the former transport secretary's story does not accord with the facts as we now know them. In particular, in this second email, Mr. Byers stated "I have not spoken to Andrew Adonis...about the matters I mentioned."

We now know this not to be true because, on Monday, the day of the Dispatches broadcast, Andrew Adonis made the following statement in reply to a question posed by Tory transport spokeswoman Baroness Hanham in the House of Lords. The question concerned Mr. Byers involvement with National Express's East Coast Mainline franchise:

"Stephen Byers had a brief conversation with me in the House of Commons last June about the East Coast Mainline. We discussed his experience in dealing with rail franchise difficulties when Transport Secretary. As regards the situation then facing National Express," he continued, "I told him that despite the company's difficulties I had no intention whatsoever of renegotiating the East Coast franchise on terms favourable to the company as the company was seeking in its approaches to my department.''

It is only in a final email, just a few days before the programme broadcast, and after some details of the sting have been leaked to a Sunday newspaper, that Mr. Byers formally withdrew from the lobbying company's selection process. Why it took him so long is a question he must answer before the Parliamentary Commissioner but it's a tough sell. He "indicated" that he had attempted secretly to influence the terms of a government negotiation, then denied that he met with Lord Adonis to discuss the matter at all. Both of these claims are false. So what, do you suppose, is the Commissioner expected to believe?