After just one week in the job it cannot be said that Alistair Darling has made an auspicious start as Transport Secretary in place of the little–lamented Stephen Byers. He would have been well–advised to stay away from the round of television studios at the weekend until he had sorted out his ideas a bit.

Instead he plunged in unwisely on the issue of the toll motorways proposed by Lord Birt who freelances in the Cabinet Office as the prime minister's “blue–sky” thinker on transport. Most people will probably agree with Mr Darling's view that “Britain is not big enough for us to be pouring more and more concrete over its green and pleasant land” but he probably should not have given his opinion until he had given Lord Birt the opportunity of explaining his ideas at first hand.

Of even greater short term significance than Mr Darling's dismissal of Lord Birt's ideas was the heavy–handed way in which a Downing Street spokesman hurried out a statement that “The Government, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister all value Lord Birt's work highly”. One does not have to be a cynic to think that the order of appreciation of Lord Birt's contribution should have been reversed.

What does ”the Government” mean in this context? Has the Cabinet passed a vote of appreciation of Lord Birt's visionary thinking?
If Mr Darling values his work so highly why did he dismiss it in his TV interview? No, it is the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister alone who values Lord Birt and Mr Darling has been publicly told so. He will be more careful in future.

Ray Fleming


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