Chris Grayling has shamelessly blamed others and he is always reacting to events, not leading them. It’s time he was moved on

 

Chris Grayling was made transport secretary in July 2016

 

 

I have always liked that old 1967 Hollies song, King Midas In Reverse. Here’s a couple of verses:

It’s plain to see it’s hopeless
Goin’ on the way we are
So even though I lose you
You’ll be better off by far

He’s not the man to hold your trust
Everything he touches turns to dust in his hands
Nothing he can do is right,
He’d even wants to sleep at night, but he can’t

He’s King Midas with a curse
He’s King Midas in Reverse

Now who does that remind you of? Step forward transport secretary Chris Grayling.

I am not making a political point. I respected and worked collegiately with each of his three Conservative predecessors at transport – Philip Hammond, Justine Greening and Patrick McLoughlin. But then they all seemed to know what they were doing and where they wanted to go.

His was for many a surprise appointment. He had served as shadow home secretary from 2009 but got into hot water over gay rights and was demoted by David Cameron to employment minister after the 2010 general election. In that role, he zealously pursued a massive reduction in jobcentreplus staff: more jobcentreminus.

He made the cabinet in 2012 as justice secretary where he wrought havoc for three years. More jobs were slashed here, especially prison officers. He caused a furore when he also tried to ban books for prisoners. So much for rehabilitation. Oh, and he was heavily criticised by the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Harding, for interfering with his independent reports.

Overall he has left the Ministry of Justice looking like a bomb site, with our prisons woefully understaffed and full of drugs, barristers on strike over legal aid changes, the probation service falling to bits, and our court estate cut to ribbons. His successors Michael Gove briefly and now David Gauke have largely had to spend their time reversing Chris Grayling’s innovations and trying to put the pieces of the department back together again, at a cost to the taxpayer of several hundred million pounds. Thanks Chris.

He was then given a brief spell as leader of the House, traditionally seen as a step towards gentle retirement, before, to the surprise of many, he was made transport secretary in July 2016.

But the surprise reflects the widespread public assumption that at any one time, the best people are appointed to the positions available. I learnt in government that this was a naive assumption.

The 2012 reshuffle that saw Chris Grayling moved to justice was a reshuffle largely handled by George Osborne, rather than David Cameron. Osborne’s motivations appeared to be twofold: one, to reward people who might then support any move he made to become party leader, and two, to move the centre of gravity to the right, largely to counter the Lib Dem influence.

So highly competent Tory ministers like Charles Hendry (energy) and Tim Loughton (education) were sacked because their faces didn’t fit, and at Justice, Ken Clarke, who was widely seen as having done a good job but was disparaged by the Tory right as being “the sixth Lib Dem in the cabinet”, was replaced by Chris Grayling, widely seen as not having done a good job.

The dice also fell for Chris when Theresa May put together her first cabinet after the EU Referendum. He had ended up on the winning side, and indeed The Daily Telegraph called him “the only real winner of the Brexit campaign”. He became Theresa May’s campaign manager for the Tory leadership – another winning outcome. All this trumped his decidedly iffy ministerial record and he was promoted to transport secretary – a combination of Brexit expediency and personal gratitude from Mrs May. Transport expertise and competence did not come into it.

It is rare, even in our combative politics, for the opposition to table a motion of no confidence in a minister, but that is what happened to Chris Grayling in June. He survived by just 20 votes, 305 to 285

So how has he done? Not very well, judging by the numbers of demands there have been for him to resign or be sacked. Calls from the RMT for a Tory to go might be regarded as par for the course, but it is rare, even in our combative politics, for the opposition to table a motion of no confidence in a minister, but that is what happened to Chris Grayling in June. He survived by just 20 votes, 305 to 285.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, put aside his normal mild demeanour and called for the transport secretary to be sacked, saying he was “asleep at the wheel” in respect of the recent rail timetable changes.

In December 2016 he faced calls to resign, including from Tory MP and former minister Bob Neill, when a leaked letter dated 2013 revealed that he had written to the then London mayor Boris Johnson to oppose handing over Southeastern suburban rail services to the London mayor in case a Labour mayor was elected, as of course Sadiq Khan subsequently was. The services under Grayling’s stewardship remain with Govia Thameslink.

Newspapers have also joined in. The Yorkshire Post, in May, called for him to go in a scathing attack, saying he had shown “contempt for the region”. The Guardian, more sardonically, wrote: “We are sorry to announce that Chris Grayling has not been cancelled. This service will continue running for some time yet, regardless of any disruption to your journey.”

Grayling himself is a courteous individual who on a personal basis is quite popular and clearly wants to do the right thing. Criticism of him therefore is solely centred around his performance where he is seen as, well, hapless. It is not surprising that when we heard of a minister opening a car door into a cyclist, it turned out to be our Chris.

Discontentment has been bubbling under for ages, but the lightning rod was the utter shambles over the introduction of the new rail timetable in May. There are, I think, two strands of criticism that came together in a nexus with the timetable fiasco.

The most immediate one was his shameless willingness to blame anyone but himself for what happened. Network Rail, GTR, the industry readiness board, they all got hung out to dry by the secretary of state who, we were led to believe, was a mere innocent bystander.

Yet Network Rail is nationalised, with one shareholder – Chris Grayling. GTR is under a tight management contract controlled by the Department for Transport, and the industry readiness board is headed by Chris Gibb, appointed by Chris Grayling and on which the DfT has a representative.

Parliament does not like buck passing, particularly when it is as obvious and as odious as this.

Parliament does not like buck passing, particularly when it is as obvious and as odious as this. Nor did The Yorkshire Post, whose editor called the attempt to blame others “disingenuous” and was scornful of the transport secretary’s attempt to slate British Rail for the region’s “knackered old trains”. As the editor pointed out, BR was abolished in 1994.

Referring to Network Rail and the train companies, the transport secretary told the Commons it was “completely unacceptable to have someone operationally in control and not taking responsibility”. Did he write that line himself? Full marks for chutzpah. It was his department that signed off the new timetable and seems to have overruled the suggestion that its implementation might be delayed.

The second strand of criticism is the more serious one, that Chris Grayling is not in charge of events, always reacting, never being ahead of the game or setting his own agenda. The timetable fiasco, the franchise on the east coast, where he seems to have been caught unawares, even Heathrow where he appeared to be put up as an Aunt Sally to read out a statement from his civil servants. What should have been a fanfare of an announcement sounded more like a set of bagpipes that had been punctured. Legal challenges are already circling like planes stacking over London.

Yet the odds are that Chris will soldier on for some time yet at the DfT, if only because the prime minister’s control of her party is so fragile she cannot afford to start moving people for fear of upsetting the Brexit balance.

Moreover, prime ministers hate to sack ministers when that is what the opposition is calling for. Instead they express “full confidence” in whoever is in the glare of the spotlight. They may even call them “unassailable”, until they are forced out shortly afterwards anyway.

It would, however, be sensible in terms of transport policy and a kindness to Grayling himself if he were moved on and replaced by someone with rather more of a grip. We might call it “taking back control”.

 

About the author:

Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

 

 

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