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

 

I write this at just past 5.30am on May 8 on what can only be described as one of the most extraordinary election nights in living memory. The face of UK politics has changed dramatically and possibly forever. Right up to the last day the opinion polls had Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck and, given the arithmetic of the constituency boundaries which so favours Labour, that was being translated into labour being the largest party, short of a parliamentary majority by about 35 – 40 seats.

And then we got the exit poll at 10pm last night and all predictions went out of the window.  There was an audible intake of breath among the group of political watchers I was with when we heard the BBC predict the Conservatives getting 316 MPs, Labour dropping to 239 and the Lib Dems collapsing way beyond anybody’s expectation – to just 10 MPs.  And north of the border, the SNP was set to win all but 1 seat in Scotland.  Nobody really believed it.  Could the opinion polls over the past few weeks have been so wrong?

And the results started coming in and suddenly we all realised that we were really witnessing a remarkable Conservative result. Let’s be clear, as I write the Conservatives still look set to be just shy of an overall majority and there will be some who complain that here is evidence again that David Cameron is unable to deliver outright victory. But this has unquestionably been a good result for the Conservative – because nobody expected it.

There is no doubt that David Cameron will be the next Prime Minister. I am also clear that by lunchtime today, both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg will have resigned as leader of their parties. The SNP have simply been initiated. The list of scalps just goes on and on – from Vince Cable in Twickenham to Ed Davy in Kingston and Surbiton and Danny Alexander in Inverness. The Lib Dems are set to be reduced to a rump of around no more than 10 MPs – from 56 before the election. This has been a disaster for the Lib Dems. Even if the Conservatives fall short of an overall majority I simply do not see how David Cameron can do any kind of deal with the Lib Dems – because I think that the Lib Dems have lost any right to be in government, such has been the dramatic collapse in the party vote.

The position for Labour is in many respects not much better. The party has been slaughtered in Scotland. As I write, with just one result to declare, the SNP has won 55 of the 59 Scottish seats, with Labour losing all of its sets bar one.  It is now on level pegging in Scotland with the Conservatives for heaven sakes. The Lib Dems too have just one MP.  This isn’t an earthquake.  It’s a political tsunami of monumental proportions. Labour expected to pick up seats in England. It has actually lost sets. It is the worst Labour performance since 1987. Ed Miliband is toast

It is impossible to express just how dramatic this election result is. But, as a civil servant, I must confess to some relief. It looks like we may have a stable government after all. Indeed, I have just seen one prediction which suggests the Conservatives may end up with an absolute majority. Extraordinary.

But there are going to be all sorts of questions emerging from this result. It is going to put pressure on our first past the post system like nothing before. UKIP looks like being third in terms of the popular vote but may end up with just two MPs. The SNP on the other hand may be fourth behind UKIP in terms of the popular vote but will get 55 or 56 MPs. That can’t be right, can it?

We have also seen the youngest MP returned to parliament since 1880. She is the SNP candidate Mhairi Black, who defeated the Labour big-wig Douglas Alexander. She is just 20 years old. No MP since 1880 has been under the age of 21! I just hope she has time to combine her school homework with her parliamentary and constituency duties!!

This result will, over the next few days and weeks, raise a number of constitutional issues – about the first past the post system, the future of the Union and so on. We will have two new party leaders within the next few months. Labour has had a very bad night. The Lib Dems have been destroyed. It’s been one of the most extraordinary elections but we will, at least have some stability. I’m off for a lie down and then to hear who our new transport secretary will be.

 

UPDATE: 13:55

Well, who would believe it? When at 5.30 I wrote that the Conservatives would be the largest party little did I – or anybody else for that matter – appreciate that David Cameron had pulled the most amazing, extraordinary victory, actually managing to secure an overall majority. It now looks that David Cameron will have an overall majority of some eight or nine seats. We even witnessed a real drama, a Labour version of the Conservatives’ Portillo moment in 1997 when Ed Balls no less lost his seat.

Now we must eagerly look forward to the cabinet and ministerial appointments. There will be lots of new faces. I wonder who we will see entering Great Minister House. The new ministerial team will have many challenges but, from the public transport perspective, there will be no greater challenge than sorting out Network Rail. We have heard much about the Conservative view that Network Rail should be broken up into separate regional entities, with these entities ultimately sold off.

There is no doubt that change is in the air. Patience with Network Rail’s inability to deliver its investment programme on time and to budget is wafer thin. How quickly the new government will move with this agenda is anybody’s guess, but it is the kind of reform that you would surely want to do quickly to give the changes time to settle in well before Control period 6 kicks in – and indeed, well before the next general election. Perhaps too we will see rail franchise procurement transferred to an independent standalone agency.

And we now we will have to move to put effect to George Osborne’s promise to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority that it can have London-style franchise powers over buses. How we do this remains to be seen. A private bill or a government bill, and what pressure will we come under to extend this commitment to others? Something tells me that Greater Manchester really will be a one-off, not least because in Great Minster House we have been making it clear that this is exactly our view!

Perhaps the sad news of this election for us in GMH is that Norman Baker lost his seat, another casualty in the tsunami that has swept through the Liberal Democrats. He suffered a swing of just over 16% against him, letting the Conservatives take this seat with a majority of just over 1,000. As I have said before, we actually came to rather like and respect Norman. Politics can be a brutal business. Cherio Norman. At least you will have more time to devote to develop your musical talents!

I said earlier that I wondered who would make up our new ministerial team – but there have been some rumours that a new Conservative administration may set up a new Department for Infrastructure and that the DfT may be abolished as a result. We shall soon find out.

What a night. Now the policy fun starts.

 

Related coverage: Transport policy: what the Tories pledged

 

Great Minster Grumbles appears in Passenger Transport every fortnight.

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