They could not be more wrong, but as it's Labour, let's give them the benefit of the doubt, eh?
You only have to read the full gory details in the Sunday Times to know that Stephen Byers was caught out in exactly the same way as several Tory MPs in the 1990s. You'd think these greedy idiots would learn, wouldn't you? No? No, me neither. Greed always seems to win.
Stephen Byers ought to stand accused of corruption - taking money to influence government decisions. The Sunday Times doesn't quite accuse him of that, but surely that's what the implication of the story is.
He regards his greatest success, however, as his “work” for National Express when the company was in negotiation with the government over its loss-making rail franchises that cost £1.4 billion.
This is how he tells the story: “They approached me, June of last year, and said, ‘We’ve got a huge problem. We want to get out of the East Coast main line but not pay a huge penalty and we want to keep the other two franchises as long we can’.
“So between you and I, I then spoke to Andrew Adonis, the transport secretary, and said, ‘Andrew, look, they’ve got a huge problem. Is there a way out of this?’ And then we, we sort of worked together — basically, the way he was comfortable doing it and you have to keep this very confidential yourself.”
“He [Adonis] said we shouldn’t be involved in the detailed negotiation between his civil servants and National Express but we can give them a broad steer. So we basically got to a situation where we agreed with Andrew he would publicly be very critical of National Express and talk about, ‘I’m going to strip you of the franchise’ and be very gung-ho.
“And we said we will live with that and we won’t challenge you in the court, provided you then let us out by December, by the end of the year, and we can keep the other two franchises for a little longer. So, and that’s what we managed to do.”
Adonis criticised the company on July 1 and it escaped without a penalty, leaving the railway line in the hands of the taxpayer. Critics have said the exchequer is likely to lose hundreds of millions of pounds when it sells the franchise to a new operator.
National Express said it had held discussions with a number of MPs whose constituencies were along the East Coast main line and Byers had been one of them. The company said it had not paid Byers: “Any actions that Mr Byers may or may not have taken following our discussions with him were entirely of his own choice.”
A source close to Richard Bowker, who was chief executive of National Express at the tims, said Byers’s version of events told to the undercover reporter was a “close footprint” that was “pretty accurate”. He said he understood the relationship with Byers was “commercial” and that he had been acting on the company’s behalf. The source added that Byers had written to Adonis and met him after the decision was taken in July to terminate the franchise.
If Byers’s relationship with National Express was commercial, then he should have registered it with the House of Commons. He did not.
So, we need to know how much (if anything) National Express paid Byers, and why he did not register it with the Commons authorities. An oversight? Surely not, when he registers so many of this other copious outside earnings.
Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt stand accused of similar things, although slightly less blatant. All in all 15 MPs are included in the Sunday Times/Dispatches investigations. Among them was the senior Tory Sir John Butterfill. He has been caught boasting of a future peerage and how it would be helpful to his consultancy interests. Do these people never learn? His chances of going to the House of Lords were never that great, I would say. Now they are close to zero. And serve him right.
Stories like this are not just damaging to the politicians concerned, or even their own parties. They damage the body politic itself. Is it any wonder that the electorate view politicians as in it for what they can get out of it. Byers self description of being like "a cab for hire" has echoes of Ian Greer's comments twenty years ago, who famously said " You can hire Members of Parliament like taxis." What has changed in 20 years? Nothing, it would seem. Ex Ministers are just as greedy as they used to be, and decent politicians suffer the backwash.
But credit to the Labour Party spin operation. They have managed to deflect supine lobby journalists into writing about how the Prime Minister will "get tough" on the issue, conveniently ignoring the fact that his government has had 13 years to do just that. And if they had, we wouldn't be reading these stories in the Sunday Times today.
About six months ago, David Cameron predicted that the lobbying world would provide the next big political scandal. He wasn't wrong, was he? Which is why he has ordered his frontbench colleagues to be so careful in their dealings with lobbyists.
And so the reputation of politics and politicians sinks to an even greater depth. Quite where it will be by 6th May is anyone's guess. Good luck to those who have to pick up the pieces afterwards. I'm almost beginning to thank my lucky stars I won't be one of them. Because I wonder if it is actually possible.