Labour’s Liam Byrne confesses all to David Laws: “I am afraid to tell you there is no money left”

In the first Treasury press conference this morning of the coalition government, Lib Dem chief secretary to the treasury David Laws revealed he’d received a letter from his Labour predecessor, Liam Byrne:

“When I arrived at my desk on the very first day as Chief Secretary, I found a letter from the previous chief secretary to give me some advice, I assumed, on how I conduct myself over the months ahead.

“Unfortunately, when I opened it, it was a one-sentence letter which simply said ’Dear Chief Secretary, I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left’, which was honest but slightly less helpful advice than I had been expecting.”

Confirmation, it seems, from the horse’s mouth of the age-old adage that all Labour governments eventually run out of money.

It’s hard to know what’s more bizarre:

    – that Liam Byrne thought the crippling public debt left by Labour was a subject worth joking about;
    – that Liam Byrne decided to make the remark in writing to one of his political opponents;
    – that Liam Byrne, while pondering a bid for the Labour leadership, thought it clever to confirm in writing one of Labour’s greatest electoral weaknesses – that they can’t be trusted to run the economy without running out of money; or
    – that Liam Byrne thinks he can now casually dismiss his startling gaffe as a “joke”.

The Telegraph reports Liam Byrne responding:

My letter was a joke, from one Chief Secretary to another. I do hope David Laws’ sense of humour wasn’t another casualty of the coalition deal.”

I think he’ll have to do a bit better than that.

But perhaps Liam Byrne’s lapse is the first casualty of no longer having a civil servant on hand to bring him his morning cappuccino?

Read more by or more about .
This entry was posted in News.


  • “that Liam Byrne, while pondering a bid for the Labour leadership,”


    Liam Byrne is a singularly poisonous New Labour creation. Rude, confrontational, devoid of principle, totally and utterly devoted to the party line whatever it might be, a sadistic relish for arguing the weakest of cases with bullying, jibes and sarcasm. In his acceptance speech after the Hodge Hill byelection count, he used the words “anti-social behaviour at least fifteen times”. I think Liam has something he could teach the yobs.

  • In fairness, this is just a joke. Not a wonderfully funny one, but I’m failing to see the outrage…

  • On the other hand, maybe he was just telling the truth? An unusual position for a Labour minister, but still….

  • If you are looking for bizarre then I wonder why I posted a week ago a criticism of Vince Cable which not one lib-dem poster has even attempted to defend. Surprising given all this “intellectual vigour” .

    One week before the election Vince Cable said loud and clear (classic Keynesian arguement) that taking 6 Billion out of the economy this year was “Foolhardy and Dangerous” and would cause a double dip.

    As Osbourne and Cable (you are all one now) now propose to take even more out of the economy then by any coherent analysis, if we follow Cable’s logic, this is even more “foolhardy and dangerous”.

    In Cable’s case there is only two explanations.

    1. He now believes he was totally wrong and has recanted.
    2. He still believes he is right but willing to gamble with the livelihood of millions . (we know why)

    Which one is true?
    Still waiting a week now.

  • Liam Byrne is a total waste of space, like all other NuLabour rightists. Complicity in torture, an illegal war, child detention, ID cards, DNA retention, one-sided extradition to the USA & general brown-nosing to the Bush Government and so much more. These people are authoritarian, statist and anti-democratic.

    How can anyone seriously want NuLabour within a thousand miles of a progressive alliance.

  • Collin W

    What illegal war? Under what law, what court or under which indictment.

    I think you will find that the UN recognised the coalition forces as legitimate. Look under resolutions 1637 &1723.

    You may call the war a lot of things, but “illegal” ?

  • Oranjepan – The account holding that £200m was probably with one of the Icelandic banks never to be seen again.

  • Dave Radcliffe 17th May '10 - 2:13pm

    I find the idea that Byrne has a sense of humour the least credible part of his response.

  • Gerry,

    Clearly you are unfamiliar with the United Nations Charter and customary public international law.

  • Gerry,

    I think you will find that the occupation and the war are two different things. The former had explicit Security Council authorisation, the latter had nothing other than Cheney’s say-so. Which, of course, you know. Are you Liam Byrne in disguise? I ask, because your sleight-of-hand sophistry is his.

  • Thanks Sesenco. Yep heard of them

    i think you will find Bhaathist Iraq in the dock on customary public international law on the basis of genocide, wars of aggression & crimes against humanity.

    Now just because you say something is illegal that does not mean it is. In the same way that something that appears legal may be in fact illegal (contract law being a good example_.

    But lets be socratic, rather than glib references to UN charters. What law, what court and under what indictment.?

    PS still waiting a week on the Vince Cable question.

  • Gerry,

    (1) There has to be a UN resolution that explicitly authorises war. Was there one? No.

    (2) Customary public international law requires that all diplomatic avenues must be exhausted before nations go to war. Had all diplomatic avenues been exhausted? No. The weapons inspectors had asked for more time. Besides which, Cheney and his cronies knew full well that there were no weapons of mass destruction, as Dr Kelly would doubtless have revelead had he not been murdered.

    (3) The English law of contract has nothing to do with public international law. I am amazed that someone who holds himself out to be a legal expert should be so ignorant as to conflate the two.

    (4) Remind me which court is currently trying Radovan Karadzic.

    (4) The UK government’s own (partisan) legal adviser was of the view that the war was illegal, as were the Foreign Office’s own specialist legal advisers, and the former only changed his mind at the last minute when he went to Texas and was threatened by Cheney’s henchman.

    (5) I have no respect for necon hacks like yourself. In my opinion, you are contemptible moral garbage. Apart from enlightening us as to the taste of Cheney’s boot polish, I doubt if there is anything you can usefully contribute to this forum. (Others can add some vernacular if they wish.)

  • Senselessco

    One -who said I am a legal expert.
    Point 1- No there does not have to be.
    2. “all diplomatic avenues”. Nonsense, unless you know of a legal definition of “all”.
    3. It is just an example that law is open to interpretation-did you not know that
    4. International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague – I think hoisted by your own petard here- see original question.
    4 (sic-have trouble counting). Hoisted/Petard again- so you admit that law is only opinion and that other legal views existed.
    5. You have no idea who I am so do not make assumptions. As for your opinion that I am “moral garbage” I treat it in the same way as I would a monkey sticking it’s tonque out at me at a zoo.

    Still no answer on the Vince Cable thing yet. Go on lightweight, give it a go.

  • I thought Liam Byrne’s letter was the sort of mildly amusing thing a member of an outgoing government might do. It may have been better for him to write a proper briefing note if that is what’s expected from an outgoing minister, but if not then I fail to see the problem.

  • Gerry wrote:

    “One -who said I am a legal expert.”

    Judging by the drivel you write, it would seem that you are anything but!

    “2. “all diplomatic avenues”. Nonsense, unless you know of a legal definition of “all”.”

    Ah, right. All diplomatic avenues are exhausted when Cheney says so.

    “3. It is just an example that law is open to interpretation-did you not know that”

    Public international law is analogous to the criminal law in that it is not open to interpretation. We don’t have implied crimes. Nor do we have implied authorisations for war.

    “so you admit that law is only opinion and that other legal views existed.”

    I admit no such thing. Other legal views did not exist. Yes, there were people who pretended to hold other views, but the overwhelming and united opinion of public international lawyers was that war requried (1) the explicit authorisation of the UN Security Council (which, despite Cheney’s egregious attempts at bribery) was lacking, and (2) all diplomatic avenues had to be exhausted.

    “You have no idea who I am so do not make assumptions.”

    Then why don’t you tell us?

    BTW, Gerry, I will make assumptions about whatever I like. I don’t require your permission.

    It is rare one stares evil in the eyeballs. You’ve made my day, Mr Necon.

  • Andrea Gill 17th May '10 - 4:05pm

    I must admit I thought it was quite funny… unless he really meant it.

  • Gerry, i think the easiest answer to your point on Vince is that he’s now had a look at the books…

    It’s clear from your lines of argumnet you are a died in the wool labour supporter, willing to overlook even their most infamous cock up. However, you are right in that there is no jurisdiction under which the UK or US governments of the day could be prosecuted – but that doesn’t mean that the invasion of iraq was legal, just that the ‘victors’ are too powerful to be held accountable, rather like Russia in Chechnya, or China in Tibet. This means that strictly the war wasn’t illegal, but it sure as hell doesn’t mean it was right.

    New Labour promoted an ethical dimension to foreign policy, but completely disregarded it in Iraq – whatever Blair’s evangelistic pronouncements, to get caught up a neo-con agenda which placed the entire middle east at risk is unforgiveable from a British foreign policy point of view – a strategic cock up of staggering proportions, let alone the moral issues of the numbers of dead. It has let Iran into a country that was a major check on it’s power and meant that the any requirement to use military force to disarm Iran – a far more pressing strategic priority than Iraq ever weas – will now be almost impossible to support.

    Well done to New Labour for screwing up strategic foreign policy so roundly – and after such a good start

  • Other legal views did not exist. Yes, there were people who pretended to hold other views,”

    So you know that they were all pretending. Must be great to be omnipotent.

    I take it you are a supporter of Baathist Iraq. Who cares then about gassing their fellow citizens?

    That viewpoint I am sure will go down well with your new buddies in Estonia. You can talk about the good old days before those nasty Soviets broke up the party.

    Still not making an attempt at the Vince Cable question then. Now there is a good example of moral bankruptcy (and also the fact that you cannot answer a simple question- despite repeated invitations.)

    PS “Stare evil in the eyeballs”.. I would like to point out that you cannot see me. oh forgot- you are omnipotent
    PPS Go on answer the Vince Cable question

  • The following link takes you to Ming Campbell’s speech to the Chilcot Inquiry in which he explains why the Iraq war was illegal under public international law:

  • and finally, on Byrne, yes it was a joke, and it raised a smile… for about 10 seconds before i thought through quite how crass it is… kind of like “yes we screwed up royally – oops…” (big nixonian grin his face)

  • Andrew Shuttlewood 17th May '10 - 4:22pm


    With respect to Vince Cable’s economic arguments you omitted the third option

    3) Despite the fact that we punish them for it, politicians can be right on Tuesday and wrong on Thursday because circumstances can change. Given that the Euro just had a massive battering over massive debts that haven’t been repaid which has all blown up SINCE THE DEBATES, maybe what was sensible then is the less prudent course of action now?

    Somebody who changes their minds given new evidence is not a flip-flopper, they’re being sensible.

  • Gerry, you can’t use the Kurds as an argument for intervention… a) it was bloody decades before and if that was the case we should’ve acted earlier… b) it was internal and we don’t get involved in internal affairs – that is a matter of international law (again subject to the power differentials) – again see China, Zimbabwe, Darfur, etc for example.

    If we were so worried about the ethics, why were we still supplying component parts for weapons and comms systems up to the first gulf war..?

  • Readers might also be interested in the following short piece by Philippe Sands QC, a leading public international lawyer, in which he explains why the Iraq war was illegal under public international law.

  • Senseco

    Actually , I have read a law report given that I have a doctorate in Law and I went to Cambridge ( Clare Hall & 6 degrees in total).

    I have been enjoying a glass of wine in the garden, whilst you my friend have spent the afternoon trawling the internet, driven by visceral feelings of irritation and anger.

    You really need to calm down a little and maybe even engage with real life.

    Tell you what. I will supply a legal opinion if you have a go at the Vince Cable question. After all I did pose that question first.

  • “Actually , I have read a law report given that I have a doctorate in Law and I went to Cambridge ( Clare Hall & 6 degrees in total).”

    Care to identify yourself?

  • Gerry,

    I see you have declined to rise to my challenge to justify your bizarre claims about public international law (believed in only by you, I suspect).

    Perhaps you might have a try when the rain sends you indoors and you sober up from your glass of wine.

    Six degrees? Wow! Not from the same Italian University that Iain Duncan Smith attended?

  • I have not declined at all. However, good manners would determine that you answer question posed to you first.

    Its not raining here, because life actually is rather sunny.

    No Italian Uni’s- just Oxbridge I am afraid.

  • Just wondering – why would anyone waste their time getting six degrees?

  • Gerry,

    I wasn’t going to comment on your non-sequiturs, as they are so transparently ridiculous, but I recognise that a lot of people are stupid and might believe you unless I do. So here goes:

    That because I oppose Cheney’s illegal war for oil in Iraq, I

    (1) support the gassing of the Kurds by the Saddam Hussein regime; and

    (2) have buddies in Estonia (??).

    This is the kind of stuff I remember from the school playground, not the type of argument I would expect to hear from someone who has whiled away the hours in the Squire Law Library.

    I posted links to those articles by Ming Campbell and Philippe Sands (2 minutes work, BTW) because they provide accessible summaries of the reasons why the Iraq war was illegal under public international law. If you have any genuine and defensible grounds for disagreeing with those jurists, then I suspect you would be delighted to tell us what they are.

    I guess my buddies in Estonia is some kind of cryptic dig at Lembit Opik. Too subtle for me, I’m afraid.

  • Andrea Gill 17th May '10 - 7:00pm

    Interestingly, the guardian daily podcast mentions £6billion cuts of which £1billion invested in stimulating growth as LibDem concession:

  • John Emerson 17th May '10 - 7:08pm

    “What illegal war? Under what law, what court or under which indictment.”

    Well article 2, paragraph 4 states

    “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

    Exception are made for self-defense or if the security council authorized it.

    Now of course it never went to court but a crime is still a crime whether it is persecuted or not. Now you are certainly free to argue that the war despite being legally dubious was still morally right, but that is a different arguement.

  • This is typical New Labour arrogance the joke might of actualy been slightly hummouros if wasnt so close to actual reality of the situation. I feel that New labour knew that this was the case when they left office thats why I believe the leadership contenders were so opposed to doing a deal and effectivly blocked the chance of a progressive alliance. I beleive with the massive spending mistakes New Labour made that they knew staying in power would have locked them out for a generation so chose to make a deal with the Lib Dems impossible by refusing to return some of the civil libeties they had stolen.

  • Well who’s the discredited joke now? Not Liam Byrne that’s for sure.

  • Well, well well – who is crowing now? Not David Laws, thats for sure. Hubris is a wonderful thing, schadenfreude even better.

  • Paul McKeown 31st May '10 - 4:04pm


    Partisan gibberish.

    Liam Byrne should have crossed the floor rather than continue to work as Chief Secretary, as he understood that the government at the time was engaged in a suicidal economic policy. That he didn’t is a sad reflection on his honesty and a statement of his ethic that narrow Labour partisan interest should be placed before the common good.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Simon R
    @Michael: You appear to be questioning my liberalism. But, like it or not, the nature of the Universe is that people have to work because - bluntly, if everyone...
  • Michael BG
    Peter Martin, I do accept that the economy needs people to do paid work to work. However, each individual makes choices and are not therefore forced to pay t...
  • Roger Lake
    This is -- or ought to be!-- amazing! And alarming. So far there are 12 reasoned responses to my title, most of them finding fault with my recommended propos...
  • Steve Trevethan
    Might being sufficiently frightened of the main stream media, to the extent that a political party does not tell reasonable approximations of (socio-economic) t...
  • Geoff Reid
    The usual good sense from Peter Wrigley. The Conservatives and their media cheer leaders cannot get their heads round the possibility of higher taxes helping to...