Sir Alastair Morton, who has died of a heart attack at the age of 66, was the man who got the Channel Tunnel built. Without his drive and energy in rescuing a project in deep trouble when he was appointed as co-chairman in early 1987, it is doubtful that the link between Britain and France would ever have been completed.
When Morton arrived, Eurotunnel, the company created to build and operate the tunnel, was in disarray. Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister, had insisted that the project should be completely private, with no public money, but it had got into serious difficulties even before a single sod had been turned. The banks, which were funding it, had been given a far too generous deal, and so had the contractors who were to build it. This, as one insider put it, “meant they could charge extra for virtually anything they did. It was like a housebuilder saying: ‘We can do you a bathroom, but it will cost you.'”
Morton, a famously abrasive and fearsome character, tall, and with a razor-sharp mind, spent the next five years trying to rein back on the awful contracts. He became adept, as one former transport minister put it, “at holding a gun to the head of the bankers, his finger silkily hovering over the trigger and saying: ‘All right, make the project go bust and you will lose all your money.'”
Morton was fearless and always ready to push the other side to the brink, knowing that the collapse of the project would benefit no one. Having inherited a project whose future was by no means certain, by the time he left there were trains running through the tunnel, now a vital part of Britain’s infrastructure.
He was born and brought up in Johannesburg: his father was a Scottish oil engineer and his mother was an Afrikaner. Morton was educated at St John’s College, Johannesburg, and Witwatersrand University, but came to Britain to study law at Worcester College, Oxford, as a De Beers scholar and remained in England for the rest of his life, although he did spend some time back in Africa and also with the World Bank in Washington.
His first big job with a political angle was as managing director of the British National Oil Corporation (1976-80) whose privatisation in 1983 by Thatcher he later fiercely opposed. By 1982, he had earned a reputation as a good operator and troubleshooter, becoming chief executive, and in 1987 chairman, of Guinness Peat, the troubled finance house which was on the verge of bankruptcy when he was appointed.
Despite the superficial bad temper, born really of a simple intolerance of fools, he was very good to work with, attracting great loyalty from his colleagues. Moreover, he was passionate about the intellectual cut and thrust of the debates over privatisation and transport policy. I still treasure the letter he sent to me after I had written an article in The Independent about the soaring costs of the Eurotunnel project, dismissing my argument by writing in the first sentence: “Strewth, this is like shooting fish in a barrel.” There are not many major company chairmen prepared to take on issues like that; we settled matters in his Canary Wharf office over sandwiches and the best Chablis I have ever drunk.
Despite such luxuries, though, his tastes were not extravagant by the standards of today’s business leaders: he took a modest salary at Eurotunnel and was unimpressed by the baubles on offer to people in his position. He was not afraid of showing off his intellect, a most unEnglish characteristic. At his inaugural press conference at Eurotunnel, he was quizzed by a French journalist who asked why a South African should be appointed as the British co-chairman of an Anglo-French project. In fluent French, he casually explained his father’s Scottish background and that he had a UK passport. And then, when a South African journalist asked a question, he berated the poor fellow in Afrikaans, but, unfortunately, nobody else quite knew what he said.
Before leaving Eurotunnel in 1996, and still fascinated by the public/private interface, he was chairman of the private finance panel (1993-95), which advised the chancellor of the exchequer and led to the highly controversial Private Finance Initiative.
Morton was a thoroughly honest man who, despite dealing with highly political projects that involved government for much of his life in business, never quite understood the extent of the duplicity of politicians and civil servants. So when he was approached to take on the chairmanship of the soon-to-be-created Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) in 1999, he thought that the job would be what it said on the tin – that the organisation would be both strategic and have authority.
Morton quickly realised that the previous notion of the privatised railway, short-term contracts to franchisees who therefore had little longterm interest in the industry, would never deliver the long-term investment that the railways needed. He devised the concept of 20-year franchises together with Special Purpose Vehicles, joint public-private ventures that would invest in improvements. There were to be new lines, increased capacity and even, possibly, new tunnels under London. He had been encouraged to set out such visionary schemes by John Prescott, the then transport secretary with whom, despite their different backgrounds, Morton got on; but Prescott’s replacement in 2001 by Stephen Byers spelt the end for the “integrated transport” vision. With the Treasury panicking about the cost, Morton’s days at the SRA were numbered. There was to be no blue skies thinking, and he was replaced after two-and-a-half years in the job by Richard Bowker, who was given a much narrower remit.
None of Morton’s schemes have come to fruition and his vision, rather unfairly, is now widely reckoned to have been naive. His failure at the SRA was a source of great disappointment to him. He had suffered serious illness – an overactive thyroid which nearly killed him, and then a bad heart – while at the SRA, but it was his inability to win over the government to his vision of a decent transport system for 21st century Britain that so irked him. It was an issue that he felt passionate about, and he was convinced that the right mix of private and public involvement could bring it about. In that, with the recent announcement of the proposed abolition of the SRA, he appears to have been sadly wrong. He is survived by his wife Sara, whom he married in 1964, their daughter Jessica, and son Hadrian.
· Robert Alastair Newton Morton, businessman, born January 11 1938; died September 1 2004