Our Whitehall insider imagines what’s going on inside the minds of the mandarins at Great Minster House, home of the DfT

A fortnight ago I bemoaned the risks of politicising the civil service if the proposed reforms being debated come to fruition. My fears were only heightened last week by the resignation of Eastleigh MP Chris Huhne. Let’s remember that Huhne was a member of the cabinet and very nearly became the leader of the Liberal Democrats. Yet now he is exposed for having spent the best part of the last two years telling lies in order to try and escape conviction for perjury over his speeding offence, and even went to great lengths in a pre-trial hearing to try and get the case against him thrown out before it reached court.

This man, who in his position was meant to meet the highest standards of probity, was prepared to duck and dive to almost any extent to avoid justice. A cabinet minister like this surely could not be trusted to make senior civil service appointments. His example provides a very compelling reason why the civil service must not become politicised. Of course, Huhne is not the only member of the cabinet who has been exposed as a serial liar. Remember Jonathan Aitkin and his libel action again The Guardian for exposing his dodgy dealings with the Saudis and his statement that he would fight the claims “with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play”? Well, Aitkin’s libel action collapsed and he ended up in prison. It would be absurd to cast all cabinet ministers in the same light, of course, but these examples, rare as they might be, demonstrate very clearly to me the dangers of allowing cabinet ministers to appoint senior civil servants and to bring a cabal of political appointees into their departments.

However, there is a lighter side to all of this. Over the next couple of weeks the Lib Dems and the Conservatives will be fighting a very bitter battle to try and win the Eastleigh by-election that takes place on February 28, following Huhne’s resignation as the MP. But on a day-to-day basis Norman Baker must work alongside his Tory colleagues here at the Department for Transport in a spirit of co-operation. I’m especially looking forward to seeing what the body language is between them the day after the by-election, as this is a contest that neither party can afford to lose.
It could all become a little surreal!

On the home front life continues to be dominated by the railways, most recently by the announcement on how we intend to proceed with the three suspended franchise competitions. Whether or not this announcement has injected any certainty into the process is another matter, given the vagueness over the length of franchise extensions to be agreed and the lack of clarity as to when the Essex Thameside and Thameslink franchise competitions will actually recommence. I can understand why the TOC and franchise bidding community may have been less than impressed by the announcement. I can’t help feeling that we may have been better off holding back on this until we were able to be rather more precise over aspects of the franchise timetable going forward.

On the other hand, I guess we would have been criticised if we had not come out with something by now, so I guess it’s a case of “damned if we do and damned if we don’t”. And just to add a sense of confusion, at a Campaign for Better Transport rail event last week Yvonne Fovargue, deputising for Maria Eagle, announced that if Labour forms the next government in 2015, any franchise competitions which had not yet been completed would be cancelled, with the implications that they would progressively brought back into public ownership wherever possible.

Then of course we had the announcement on the second leg of the high speed rail project, an announcement that was never going to please everybody. Here again I wonder whether we are out of the starting blocks too soon as we have not yet had any decision from the judge who last December heard the five judicial reviews that have been lodged against the initial leg between London and the West Midlands. If we lose any or all of the judicial reviews we may be made to look a little foolish for announcing the second leg, as any defeat will cause many commentators to question whether the project can really be revived. Of course, losing the JRs is not necessarily the end of the project. We may have to go back to the beginning and start all over again, and given the strong political commitment to it, this seems the likely outcome of any defeat in the courts. But it just feels to me that we may have been better off holding back on the announcement until we had clarity on the outcome of the JRs. Still, I guess there are wiser heads than mine thinking about all of this!

 

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport. Click here to subscribe.