THE FALL of Stephen Byers was quite revealing about the nature of politics in Britain today. In the first place, the Labour MPs who rallied round Byers because he effectively nationalised Railtrack bear witness to the capacity for wishful thinking of government backbenchers.
Byers-for all the impression of mediocrity, incompetence and mendacity that he unfailingly conveyed-was not a fringe figure. And he certainly wasn't an Old Labour man fallen on hard times. He was a hardcore supporter of the New Labour 'project'. In 1996 Byers caused a furore when he told journalists that a Blair government would use any resistance by the trade union movement to break the links between the unions and the Labour Party.
After Peter Mandelson's departure Byers was the most open advocate in the cabinet of rapid British entry into the euro. This is almost certainly Blair's preference, although he is too afraid of Rupert Murdoch and Gordon Brown to say this publicly.
The connections went both ways. According to one account of the Jo Moore fiasco, Byers wanted to sack her straight after her notorious e-mail saying that 11 September was 'a good day to bury news'. It was apparently Blair who blocked this move. He did so because Moore was, so to speak, 'one of us'-that is, a member of the very narrow group of people in and around the government who were strongly committed to New Labour. This is in itself quite interesting. It suggests that, despite two huge general election victories and five years in 10 Downing Street, Blair still feels isolated and embattled.
It also indicates that many Labour ministers aren't sincere believers in the Third Way, but are placemen and women interested chiefly in their careers.
After he took over Railtrack last October Byers attracted a new set of enemies among the company's shareholders and in the City more generally. It was this, combined with the Moore affair and its increasingly surreal ramifications, that made him the target of the tabloid press.
It is true that at this point Byers made a play for the support of Labour backbenchers. He even gave an interview to the Guardian where he ventured to criticise the Third Way.
But these were the desperate efforts of a cabinet minister who had been holed beneath the waterline and was sinking fast. Eventually, as the water swirled around his head, Blair, no doubt helped by Alastair Campbell, gave him a final push.
Alan Watkins in the Independent on Sunday called Byers's fall 'a great victory for the brutish press'. The tabloids were championing a strange coalition of City shareholders and disgruntled commuters-of profiteers and their victims. This isn't the first time that such a bizarre popular front has shaken New Labour's supremacy. For a few days in September 2000 the fuel protests had the Blair government on the ropes. Both cases indicate the fragility of New Labour's support.
The government's strong lead in the opinion polls is partly a reflection of the economic climate. But it also indicates the absence of any credible alternative. It is this, rather than positive enthusiasm for New Labour, that holds the government in place.
But if people get sufficiently angry, Blair's strength can suddenly evaporate. On the key issue of public services the government is in a very dangerous position. The transport crisis, for example, is a direct result of Gordon Brown's insistence on continuing Tory policies and starving the public sector of desperately needed investment.
Now one of Brown's clones, Alistair Darling, has taken over as Secretary of State for Transport. Philip Stephens commented in the Financial Times, 'Lunatics and asylums come to mind.'
Indeed Darling immediately affirmed his commitment to Brown's mad plan to privatise London Underground. Apart from Darling's move, the most widely noticed feature of last week's reshuffle was Blair's appointment of young Third Way enthusiasts like his former adviser David Miliband and the black MP David Lammy. The media predicted that Blair would soon bring them into the cabinet.
The Observer waxed lyrical: 'Miliband is a new breed of politician-analytical, unmarked by the real 'black days' for Labour during the 1980s, and likes nothing better than a convention meeting on the future of the European left.'
In other words, Blair is promoting young loyalists with no experience of real politics. Just what he needs in the stormy times that lie ahead for his government.
Alex Callinicos is the author of The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx and a contributor to Marxism and the New Imperialism. Both are available from Bookmarks- phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com