Patrick McLoughlin is shrewd enough to have known that becoming transport secretary might thrust him into public consciousness at some point. But not in his worst nightmares could he have expected, just three weeks after moving from 20 years of anonymity in the Conservative whips’ office, to be dealing with the railways’ biggest crisis since the demise of Railtrack a decade ago.
The collapse of the West Coast franchise bidding process is not a little local matter that can be resolved simply by restarting the process and hoping no one will notice. Rather, it raises fundamental questions about the relationship between government and the railways, which remain unanswered two decades since privatisation.
That leaves poor Mr McLoughlin with a very full, difficult inbox. That said, his decisiveness in aborting the process and announcing two inquiries into what went wrong, and how to remedy it, bears the hallmark of a man who can think on his feet in a predicament. However, finding a solution to the difficulties facing the franchise process will require a sure hand in an industry that always ends up occupying far more of this secretary’s time than its modal share (eight per cent of all transport) would suggest.
McLoughlin will have discovered this already, since he was immediately called to account for the franchise fiasco at the Transport Select Committee, where he came across as affable – a word often used of him by fellow MPs – and confident, despite the fact that he was relying heavily on information provided by the very civil servants who had got him into this mess in the first place. In fact, although he would not admit it publicly, his two predecessors, Philip Hammond and Justine Greening, have much to answer for regarding decisions they made (or avoided making, in the case of Hammond) during their tenures as transport secretary. The solution may have to be radical: while re-nationalisation has been ruled out, options range from creating a new rail agency in the mould of the defunct Strategic Rail Authority, to shifting procurement to a new department.
Time for a charm offensive?
McLoughlin is that rare beast, a working-class Tory of Irish extraction who worked as a miner, like his father and grandfather before him. He came to prominence during the miners’ strike of 1984, when he spoke at the Tory party conference to announce he would work through the strike. By then he was a local councillor and his rise was swift, becoming MP in 1986 and briefly a minister. Despite his very public falling-out with the Speaker, John Bercow – when each lost his temper over Commons protocol during a heated debate – he has very good relationships with members on both sides of the House and will need to draw on this stock of goodwill and use his considerable charm to protect his department, as the franchise fiasco continues to unfold.
There are other railway matters that will require McLoughlin to continue honing his diplomatic skills. The big one is trying to navigate High Speed 2, the new railway line between London and Birmingham (and later Leeds and Manchester) through swathes of dissenting Tory home-county backbenchers, who see it as the type of grand project favoured by those nasty socialists across the floor. Then there’s the annual fare rise in January – fortunately cut from three per cent above RPI to one per cent by David Cameron, but nevertheless unpalatable at a time when fuel rises for motorists always seem to be kicked into touch.
Road construction, which is to be boosted as part of a rush to invest in infrastructure, is another issue where cabinet support is not necessarily matched at grass-roots level. While some schemes, such as bypasses, can enjoy local acceptance, the last major road-building programme was derailed by protests that encompassed blue-rinse Tory ladies alongside tree-hugging demonstrators.
Parking aviation problems for local issues
Luckily for McLoughlin, problems over aviation – that other controversial aspect of his brief – have largely been shifted off the agenda temporarily by the establishment of the Howard Davies Commission into runway capacity in the South East. This, ideally, will allow him some time in his Derbyshire constituency, which is where his heart lies.
A prominent local Tory summed up his assessment of McLoughlin by emphasising his local interests: “Patrick is at heart a constituency MP. He never seems happier than being seen out and about on his patch, whether dealing with constituents’ issues, launching Ashbourne’s Shrovetide football match or visiting local heritage railways.”
He does have a controversial railway issue right on his doorstep – the deeply unpopular decision to award the Thameslink fleet contract to German company Siemens rather than locally based Bombardier. McLoughlin endeared himself to the Derbyshire railway industry when, as chief whip, he joined local Tory MPs hearing representations from the Derby Rail Forum following that decision.
The measure of an effective chief whip is invisibility; certainly, McLoughlin would never have been asked to appear on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. And after former whip Andrew Mitchell’s ‘plebs’ debacle, David Cameron may be ruing the day he sent McLoughlin to head up transport. However, Cameron’s loss could just turn out to be the railways’ gain.