Ever since Labour was elected in 1997, the Tories have been crap at opposition. They just did not understand what the party in opposition had to do, largely because they felt they were the natural party of government and those upstarts on the other side of the chamber should not be allowed to rule.
Labour, on the other hand, excelled at it. The almost universally hostile reaction to rail privatisation, for example, was fed by a string of Labour revelations and leaks, with politicians like Brian Wilson, later energy minister, making their reputation by being on the TV constantly railing against the policy. (Let’s just forget, for the moment, that the party then largely endorsed much of what the Tories had done, performing more U-turns than the average London cabbie.) Even Gordon Brown first made his reputation with his forensic dissection of the Tories’ social security policy. The Tories were uninterested in transport, and their succession of transport spokespeople rarely ever made the news. They did not put out many statements and those that were issued tended to be on how dreadfully Labour was treating motorists when, in fact, we all know that public transport fares continue to rise more quickly than motoring costs. The nadir came with the incumbent under Michael Howard, Alan Duncan, who did not seem to know what a High Speed Train is or that train leasing companies and not the operators owned the stock.
Now all this is set to change. The Tories have appointed a Young Turk, Chris Grayling, as their transport spokesman. Not only does he know a lot about transport, having sat on the Commons transport committee, but he is also prepared to bare his teeth and do a bit of homework. He started off with attack on Labour’s 10 year plan which, he noticed, was at the mid point and most of the promises had not been carried out. Where, indeed, were the tram schemes opening at the rate of one a year that had been promised, and all the other investment.
Now this did not take a lot of effort, but it received some press coverage in the slack New Year period and got a response from Alistair Darling. Hopefully, this is the start of having a real opposition that highlights the government’s inadequacies on transport. God knows, there are certainly enough of them, ranging from a complete lack of vision, a policy of predict and provide in aviation, a refusal to acknowledge that the structure of the railways is completely flawed and the failure to ensure that price signals favour environmentally friendly modes like trains and buses rather than cars.
However, it is not good enough for the Tories to oppose and pretend that they are no hard decisions to make on transport. There is the fundamental issue of whether there should be some attempt to limit transport because of the environmental cost through planning, the use of pricing signals (higher fuel duty for example), taxes on aviation and so on, or whether a transport policy simply embodies a predict and provide ethos, the traditional Tory view. Hopefully, at least there will be a debate over these issues.