They booked Peter Mandelson; they got Stephen Byers. Such is the risk run by any official function organiser seeking to add pizzazz to an event by inviting a member of the Government as an after-dinner speaker. Mandelson is still box office but the Institute of Electrical Engineers had invited the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to speak to an audience of 1,500 at its annual dinner, so protocol dictated that Byers had to fill his shoes. It's an unenviable task, especially knowing you haven't quite yet made it to the top of the bill. So how did he do?
Byers started out well, observing one of the cardinal rules of speaking: confront the uncomfortable issues uppermost in people's minds right at the start. Yes, he admitted, he was surprised to be the third Secretary of State at the DTI in 20 months. By acknowledging the Government's discomfort, he took the wind out of the sails of many sceptics.
But what about the sleaze, thought the audience; where does Byers stand on that? No problem. Byers, so he claimed, is the only person in the Labour party to have lent money to Geoffrey Robinson. Cue riotous laughter and applause. He had the audience eating out of his hand.
Unfortunately, having softened up his audience, he just had to slip in some boring policy stuff obviously penned by an apparatchik at the DTI.
Why do they do it? He will undoubtedly take more care at the party conference in the autumn, preaching to the converted. He should have done the same with the IEE revellers.
Key moment: Byers confronts the unpalatable issues straightaway.
Key lesson: Keep your audience's concerns in your mind throughout the speech.
Silver tongue or foot in mouth?
Khalid Aziz, e-mail: email@example.com.