To what extent was Stephen Byers exaggerating or even fantasising when he claimed that he was able to influence the process by which National Express exited a loss-making East coast rail franchise?
That is certainly the current view of Byers himself, who – perhaps after realising he had been the victim of a journalistic sting – retracted his claims. Hilariously, he has “regretted that my misleading comments might be taken seriously”.
Originally Byers, a former transport secretary (the picture is old but I love the moustache) told the fake lobbyist that he had enabled National Express to negotiate favourable terms in jettisoning the franchise without penalties.
The problem with his self-promoting claim is that the contract ended last year with the loss of £72m to the transport company, in the form of a £32m performance bond and a £40m loan which it walked away from.
Someone familiar with events has confirmed to me that Byers did ask Adonis questions about National Express and the East Coast line. (National Express is not named under Byers’ entry in the MPs’ register of interests – the company told the Sunday Times it did not pay him any money).
There was only one conversation between Byers and Adonis, however, and it was at the House of Commons – not the Department for Transport. The idea that Byers managed to influence events is “fantasy”, I’m told by one of the negotiators.
According to recently released FOI documents the chairman of National Express, John Devaney, told Adonis in June last year that he could be prepared to hand over £100m to £150m to quit the contract.
That would appear to be much higher than the £72m ultimately paid. The crucial difference is that the deal mooted by Devaney would have involved National Express keeping two other (profit-making) lines: East Anglia and C2C.
That hasn’t happened: Adonis was determined not to encourage other rail companies to desert their franchises. As a result National Express is losing its East Anglia contract in 2011 – three years earlier than expected. And it won’t get a chance to renew C2C in 2011.
In other words, it’s hard to see quite how Byers’ original account can be squared with what actually happened.