The race to become the next PM is down to the final two. So what do we know about them and their views on transport?

Tank commanders: Rishi Sunak (left) and Liz Truss

So, we are to have a new prime minister. As to whether that will be Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss, we will have to wait for the electorate to decide.

The electorate in this case are the paid up members of the Conservative party, estimated to total around 180,000 or 0.003% of the population of the UK. It is called democracy. It is not very different from the percentage who decided matters after Simon de Montfort and the other barons defeated King Henry III at the Battle of Lewes in 1265, a battle that led to the creation of the first English parliament. We do not seem to have come a very long way in almost 800 years.

Still, from the sidelines we can assess what approach each of these candidates might take towards transport if they cross the threshold of No 10.

You might expect me to be enamoured of Liz Truss, given that she was once a Lib Dem activist. Indeed, we once spoke on the same party platform back in 1994 to call for the abolition of the monarchy. Here’s the clip:

I cannot say I am enamoured. The foreign secretary appears to have decided to say whatever is necessary, to make whatever promises are required, to persuade the Tory party members to vote for her.

Tastelessly, this involves attacking the EU and the French in particular, including over the long queues at the port of Dover. While it is true that the French might have moved up a gear, the primary reason for the long queues is Brexit paperwork. Politicians finding foreigners to scapegoat has a long and unpleasant history in our world. The last refuge of the scoundrel.

Truss has promised a bonfire of EU “red tape”, blissfully unaware it seems that the Brexit she supports has created the biggest ever increase in red tape and pointless form-filling. Look out for the weakening of workers’ rights and environmental safeguards in this cull of “red tape”.

Liz Truss likes to portray herself as a reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher (who by the way was the leading instigator of the EU single market), yet her economic approach is the antithesis of the sound money philosophy that Margaret Thatcher aspoused.

The British economy post-Covid and post-Brexit is not in good shape. The government’s debt interest payments soared to £19.4bn last month alone, and the budget deficit for the year will easily top £100bn. Faced with this, Liz Truss has promised an emergency budget which will cut taxes and so cost the Treasury a further £30bn. At the same time, she is promising massive increases in spending on areas like defence.

No wonder Rishi Sunak has described this as a “something-for-nothing” approach, or cakeism, as the press now describe it.

Economic experts, including ones she relies on, have warned that this approach will fuel inflation and could lead to interest rates at around 7%, which would be devastating for those with mortgages. And runaway inflation will impact very badly on debt repayments, as well as stoking further unrest amongst the working population.

Truss told GB News last week that her favourite 80s song is I Wanna Dance With Somebody by Whitney Houston. I suggest the Bucks Fizz number, The Land Of Make Believe, might be more appropriate.

When chief secretary to the Treasury in a previous ministerial role, [Liz Truss] publicly suggested back in 2019 that HS2 might have to be abandoned, calling it a vanity project

As for transport, this has hardly featured on our Liz’s radar, and where it has the signs are not good. When chief secretary to the Treasury in a previous ministerial role, she publicly suggested back in 2019 that HS2 might have to be abandoned, calling it a vanity project. She said that the public wanted to focus on “core public services”, one of which was “roads” (note: not transport).

“They [the public] want the local roads fixed and not to have to sit in a traffic jam. They want a less crowded commute into work.”

She also at the time – more cakeism – endorsed transport investment in the north but refused to back proposals for a high speed line from Liverpool to Hull via Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. We now know of course that the eastern leg of HS2 has been cut right back.

Her intention as PM, it seems, is to cut fuel duty again, which not only reduces income for the Treasury but encourages modal shift to carbon-unfriendly road transport. And her stated intention to cut the green levy will curtail the installation of energy efficiency measures in poorer households.

All of this of course runs contrary to the government’s Net Zero strategy, and indeed a commitment to Net Zero had to be squeezed out of her during the leadership hustings.

Slightly more encouraging, in her own constituency of Norfolk South West in the 2019 general election, she called for the introduction of 10-carriage trains on the King’s Lynn to Ely line, and for the upgrading of Ely North junction, which indeed is pivotal to any major improvements in East Anglian rail services.

Rail does not in fact feature heavily in her constituency. There are direct trains from King’s Cross to Downham Market, and Thetford can be reached with a change at Ely. Swaffham, however, lost its station in 1968.

The bus service is the usual inadequate and dispiriting option all too often found in shire areas these days.

Incidentally, if you will allow me the diversion, her constituency also includes Feltwell. When I was an MP, I discovered there were actually no RAF personnel at RAF Feltwell. So I asked the Ministry of Defence “for what reason are there no RAF personnel at RAF Feltwell?”. The answer? “There is no requirement for any RAF personnel at RAF Feltwell.” There you go.

If I have spent a disproportionate amount of this article on Liz Truss, it is because I predict she will win. For the Tory members, it is heart versus head, and for them heart will always win (as indeed it did on the Brexit vote).

How else can you explain a decision to choose, for example, Iain Duncan Smith over the electorally appealing Ken Clarke?

But let us have a look at the former chancellor, Rishi Sunak. He is equally determined to describe himself as a Thatcherite, and even went as far as making his first speech after the short list of two had been decided in Grantham, Margaret Thatcher’s home town.

Quite what the Iron Lady would have made of being hijacked by both candidates is anyone’s guess. I suspect she might have been rather scornful.

Of the two, Rishi Sunak has probably more claim to the label, and is making a virtue of his financial prudence. I fear however his electorate want irresponsible jam today, not responsible jam at some distant point in the future.

Having said that, the rise in National Insurance looks like a mistake, and the big increase in corporation tax certainly eyebrow-raising, but he cannot with credibility u-turn, so he has little choice but to argue that those are sensible measures.

At the Treasury, [Rishi Sunak] came to the conclusion that the finances of the railway were out of control, pointing to overruns on budgets for schemes like HS2, and that the Department for Transport was not getting a grip

As for transport, his record is not encouraging. At the Treasury, he came to the conclusion that the finances of the railway were out of control, pointing to overruns on budgets for schemes like HS2, and that the Department for Transport was not getting a grip. Unfortunately, there was more than an element of truth in his conclusions.

In the 2021 Budget, he imposed a straitjacket on infrastructure spending equivalent to 3% of GDP. Given that such spending is genuine investment that will create jobs and improve GDP, this decision seemed unnecessarily restrictive, not to say arbitrary. Moreover, it is a target far too tight for the investment needed to deliver reductions in carbon in line with the government’s own targets, and we know it is the transport sector, along with housing, where the biggest carbon reductions are needed.

There were of course welcome decisions taken on rail and bus while Rishi Sunak was chancellor, but these largely came as a result of pressure from No 10 and from the Department for Transport, rather than any enthusiasm from the Treasury.

When Sunak did take action was to cut Air Passenger Duty, and fuel duty for motorists, thereby giving a further financial edge to the most polluting forms of transport when set against bus, coach and rail.

Nor can we gain much comfort from his own Richmond constituency, a sprawling area in Yorkshire where buses are largely absent and trains too, with Northallerton the only station on the map. To get to Richmond itself requires a bus connection from Darlington.

On a positive note, the former chancellor has from the start seemed the most committed of all the leadership candidates to Net Zero, though to be honest, there was not a great deal of competition for this accolade.

So we wait until the Tory members, who are predominantly well-off, elderly, and living in the south, make up their minds. I predict Truss to win, Sunak to be offered the position of foreign secretary to get him out of the way, and a chill wind to blow over the public transport sector.

But hey, have a good summer. If you are planning to leave the country, I suggest you avoid the airports and Dover as well. Try Eurostar, or the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry.

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 story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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