Media links Desmond's donation to fall of Byers

Sundays revealed donation was kept under wraps

The part the press and in particular Richard Desmond’s £100,000 donation to Labour played in the downfall of Transport Secretary Stephen Byers was still being assessed this week.

There are those in the industry who feel certain the donation was the straw that broke the camel’s back in his resignation decision, made at the weekend, though the lobby feels it was just one factor in many.

Sunday newspapers, in particular The Mail on Sunday and The Observer, revealed two weeks ago that the Labour Party had kept the donation under wraps. It was made days after Desmond’s application to buy the Daily and Sunday Express and the Daily Star was waved through by Byers, who was the Trade Secretary at the time, without an inquiry into whether he was a fit person to own the papers.

Byers’ attempt to defuse the subsequent outrage backfired this week. At his request, the Office of Fair Trading, the Home Office, and the Department of Culture made clear they had raised no objection to the takeover on competition grounds. But the OFT disclosed that it had received 23 representations expressing "unease" about Desmond taking over Express Newspapers.

"The OFT is not well placed, however, to assess the non-competition issues which have been raised in this case. These have been summarised in order that ministers can consider these concerns," the report said.

The astonishing leak in The Guardian last Wednesday that Desmond has been invited to tea at No.10 in the next few weeks, an invitation made after the controversy over the donation broke, is confirmation that the Prime Minister intends to go on backing him.

A spokesman for Northern & Shell, Desmond’s parent company, said: "Richard feels the Labour Party has been entirely supportive of him as indeed his company, in terms of the donation, has shown he is in support of them."

Of the invitation, the spokesman said: "Richard has had regular contact and meetings with senior figures in the Government and the Prime Minister as part of his standing as a national newspaper proprietor. Richard was in Downing Street with his editorial team a couple of months ago. It would fit in with that pattern that has been established since he took over the papers 18 months ago."

If Byers had not gone, he would have faced a fresh grilling in Parliament from the Tories, who still plan to put the beleaguered ex-minister on the spot about Desmond.

Tory Trade & Industry spokesman Nigel Waterson said: "Byers’ fig leaf that he relied on officials has been ripped away. But he has still not come clean on what actually was in his mind when he made his decision. We don’t know whether there was any link with the £100,000 donation or whether he was aware of the donation."

By Jean Morgan and David Rose

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