The wait is over and we now have a new prime minister and a new secretary of state. What does this mean for the transport agenda?

Liz Truss speaking outside Downing Street after becoming prime minister

So we do indeed have Liz Truss as the new prime minister, as I predicted in my last column for Passenger Transport. Though that prediction hardly qualifies me as some sort of Mystic Meg.

Ms Truss looked home and dry from the off, though the margin of victory, at 57%-43%, was tighter than many predicted. The opinion polls, if they can be believed, suggested that the more she was exposed to the airwaves, the less enthusiastic people became.

The original Conservative party rules intended to allow members to change their vote during the campaign if they wanted, but that was stopped due to fear of fraud. We will never know what would have happened had that provision remained in place.

In any case, that direction of travel does not bode well for the new prime minister, and 57-43 is the tightest margin in a contest for Tory party leader since the present system involving the membership began.

Moreover, Liz Truss is the first ever leader of her party to triumph when a majority of her own MPs did not support her, and plumped instead for Rishi Sunak, who now looks destined for a period of near oblivion on the backbenches.

The new PM faces a horrendous in-tray, including rampant inflation, massive energy hikes, a very stretched NHS, a wave of strikes unseen since the 1970s, and the continuing war in Ukraine. Her promised tax cuts, coupled with an expected and speedy U-turn on what she pejoratively called “handouts”, will bleed the Treasury badly.

We are already seeing big downward pressure on the pound, including against the dollar, where parity for the first time ever is within sight. Given that oil is traded in dollars, that can only worsen inflation and add fuel to the energy fire.

A sensible first step would have been to create a government that represented all shades of opinion within what has been a fractious Conservative Party. Indeed, there is even a public interest argument for reaching out to the other political parties as well, to try to find some common ground on elements of her hugely challenging in-tray.

But instead she has surrounded herself with loyalists, sacking those who supported Rishi Sunak, and in doing so moved the party even further to the right, and further away from mainstream public opinion.

What does this mean for the transport agenda?

To start with, it does not look good for those of us who believe in robust action to lessen the impact of climate change. We now have the 19th century Jacob Rees-Mogg in charge of the business department where climate change policy is decided. Our Old Etonian is among the tiny percentage of the population who is something of a climate denier.

True, the well-regarded Alok Sharma remains as president of COP 26 but I expect this is firstly because the role is time limited anyway, and secondly because tackling climate change is so far down Liz Truss’s list of priorities that for her it is neither here nor there who carries out this role.

Liz Truss herself seems to want to restart fracking, and prioritise getting more oil and gas out of the North Sea, which are not simply bad ideas in terms of the environment, but not sensible economically either. Renewables are now the cheapest form of energy to produce, and the timescale for getting extra capacity online is so much quicker than any fossil fuel endeavours off the coast.

She has not said a great deal yet on transport modes, though depressingly she seems to want to prioritise the construction of more roads

She has not said a great deal yet on transport modes, though depressingly she seems to want to prioritise the construction of more roads. I also note she took a private jet to Balmoral and back to see the Queen, and a separate one from Boris Johnson, when there are plenty of flights from London to Aberdeen, or indeed something called Zoom.

She has also announced she intends to support the marginal Doncaster Sheffield Airport, misleadingly called Robin Hood as the area for some reason believes it has more claim on the legendary hero than Nottingham.

She does have close ties to two right-wing think tanks, the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs, both of whom support road pricing. Perhaps at last the government will actively adopt and promote a policy everyone knows to be inevitable.

On the positive side, she has campaigned for rail improvements in her own constituency. Generally, she is strongly in favour of private sector involvement in rail, which of course is being sharply diminished by the Williams-Shapps plan.

And what of our new transport secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan? Her interest in transport hitherto appears to have been limited. As a backbench MP, she asked, in round figures, zero written questions on transport.

The majority of the time she has spent on transport has been to campaign for the dualling of the A1 from her constituency of Berwick-Upon-Tweed north to Edinburgh. Now for all I know there may be a good case for this, but undoubtedly such a road scheme, if introduced, can only adversely affect the parallel railway.

Beyond that, she has taken an interest in the LNER service which serves her patch and in fact welcomed the decision to return the east coast main line franchise to Department for Transport control.

The fact that her previous government post was as a minister covering the climate change brief is hopefully a sign that she will be appreciative of the challenges here.

As I write (on Wednesday lunchtime), we do not know what changes will be taking place within the ranks of the junior ministers. Certainly at 12.30, an urgent question from the Stockport MP on the shambles that is Avanti West Coast was answered by Trudy Harrison (rather than by rail minister Wendy Morton), whose mind must have been half distracted by the question as to whether or not this was her last duty as a transport minister.

Observers will have noticed that there were a couple of big announcements shortly before the change of prime minister

Observers will have noticed that there were a couple of big announcements shortly before the change of prime minister.

One was to extend the emergency support for buses for a further six months, which was a welcome surprise for many. It had long been signalled that the Covid recovery support would end this autumn. It is only a pity the announcement could not have come a couple of weeks earlier, for it seems very likely bus operators will have submitted notifications of route withdrawals to their traffic commissioner and may not have done so had they known of the further support now forthcoming. The government announcement came on the very last day for submissions to traffic commissioners in respect of services intended to be withdrawn on the first day after the support was due to run out.

The other welcome development, though less of a surprise, was the announcement of a £2 maximum fare for bus journeys taken in the first three months of 2023.

Why was this bit of good news in particular bundled out of the door so near to the change of prime minister? On the Saturday before the handover in fact. Was it because either or both Boris Johnson or Grant Shapps wanted to add this to their list of achievements?

Perhaps, but a more likely and more depressing reason is that they felt a chill wind coming towards public transport from the likely new regime, and did not trust Truss and Co to continue with the plans that were being worked up, and they wanted to make sure they were not lost. This would also account for the fact that the mechanism of the £2 flat fare is far from fully worked out. That is in fact the explanation given to me by my Downing Street source.

The DfT will of course carry on with its forward plans, but the personality and priorities of the person at the top can make a huge difference. Grant Shapps in my view turned out to be quite a good transport secretary – on top of the detail, interested in the subject, committed to public transport. Contrast that, for example, with the reign of Chris “Failing” Grayling and his multi-million pound splurge on non-existent ferries.

It remains to be seen where Anne-Marie Trevelyan will end up in the rankings of transport secretaries. She does, to be fair, seem one of the more engaged and more moderate members of the cabinet, though frankly that is not saying much.

Perhaps more to the point, will she be allowed to get on with the job, or will the climate change scepticism and extreme free market right-wing ideology that seems very likely to come from No10 and No11 derail her?

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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