In the last three months we have had three transport secretaries. And the latest incumbent is my former colleague, Mark Harper

Mark Harper

Another week, another prime minister, another transport secretary and another lot of new junior transport ministers. Perhaps Passenger Transport should turn into a weekly publication so we can keep up with the bewildering rollercoaster of changes.

So it’s goodbye Anne-Marie Trevelyan. We barely got to know you. Indeed, I have just googled your name to check the spelling and you come up as international development secretary. How many incarnations ago was that?

As for Grant Shapps, he must have been dead chuffed to have been brought back from the wilderness to become home secretary, only to have the prize snatched from him six days later – the shortest tenure in history. A pity, as actually I think that was quite a good appointment.

And the shortest tenure in history as PM for Liz Truss (remember her?) – 45 days to P45. You are the weakest link. Goodbye.

This really is no way to run a government. We have now had five prime ministers in six years, four chancellors in four months, three transport secretaries in three… and a partridge in a pear tree.

Every time a new minister arrives, a good deal of time has to be devoted to bringing him or her up to speed, sometimes even educating them from scratch

Every time a new minister arrives, a good deal of time has to be devoted to bringing him or her up to speed, sometimes even educating them from scratch. It is not safe to assume anything. I recall in week one of the coalition hearing Philip Hammond, the new transport secretary, demanded to know why trains could not stop at level crossings to let cars through rather than the other way around.

And while all this day-one briefing is going on, the department will be effectively on autopilot. How can the captain steer the ship when they do not even know where the wheel is?

The constant churn of ministers inevitably results in less good government than if they are allowed a decent period in the same department. The churn is not new – by the time I had completed my three and a half years as a transport minister in the autumn of 2013, I was on my third secretary of state and was the only ministerial survivor from May 2010. But it has got a lot worse since the end of the coalition.

Nor is the civil service immune from churn. By autumn 2013, I was also on my fourth so-called permanent secretary and often found myself knowing rather more than the reshuffled officials who were supposed to be briefing me. Often I ended up briefing them.

Incidentally, when a minister loses their job or resigns, they receive a redundancy payment which currently stands at £16,876 and which they can keep, provided they are not reinstated within three weeks. So cheques all around for Grant Shapps, Dominic Raab, Michael Gove and the rest, all now back in government – a nice little mini-break paid for by the taxpayer. Shapps, to be fair, is donating half to charity. And at least the three-week rule means no fat cheque for the ghastly Suella Braverman who was out of office for just six days.

I understand the bill for such payments this year is around £700,000 and rising, a figure swelled by the mass resignations of about 50 ministers to force Boris Johnson out.

I like Mark. He and I were ministers together in the Home Office and while we had quite divergent views in the most challenging of coalition departments, I always found him to be friendly, straight-talking and competent

So now we have Mark Harper as transport secretary. Actually, I like Mark. He and I were ministers together in the Home Office and while we had quite divergent views in the most challenging of coalition departments, I always found him to be friendly, straight-talking and competent.

Elected to the Commons in 2005, he was handed a challenging role in the coalition when he was made No2 to the Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. Mark played it straight and managed to win the trust of the Lib Dems without compromising his Conservative values. He walked that tightrope with some aplomb.

After his time at the Home Office and a spell at the Department for Work and Pensions, he was made chief whip after the 2015 election before being sacked by Theresa May (remember her?). He stood in the 2019 Tory leadership contest but scored, I think, only 10 votes. When Covid arrived, he strongly advocated looser controls than those imposed by his government.

So he was out of ministerial office for around six years before becoming the surprise appointment as the latest transport secretary.

Mark is, I think, a principled politician. At the Home Office when he was immigration minister, an issue arose about the immigration status of his home cleaner and Mark promptly resigned. In my view, it was an unintentional minor infringement and he could have ridden it out, but he thought it wrong to try.
He was also one of those who showed distaste for the unconstitutional and unethical behaviour of Boris Johnson and sent a letter of no confidence to Graham Brady.

What can we discern from his approach to transport? Well not much, frankly. We do know he is strongly in favour of HS2, stating on his blog that it was “a momentous moment” the day construction began, and adding that, “our country cannot stand still when it comes to building high-quality infrastructure.”
That suggests that he may well fight to resist any paring back of capital projects identified for culling by the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt.

In his own Forest of Dean constituency, commenting for Gloucester Live on the problems on the A40 and A48, he said: “Clearly there is a role for public transport and if we can get more people using the train that would be great but ultimately it’s about making sure the traffic flows which means keeping pressure on highways bodies to make sure they all work together.”

It is encouraging that he mentioned public transport here, or am I reading too much into this?

Interestingly, he faces an immediate public transport issue in his own backyard. Local bus operator Stagecoach announced last month that it was withdrawing six Forest of Dean bus routes this month, with further cuts to follow in Gloucester, Cheltenham and Cirencester.

Stagecoach blames the aftermath of the pandemic and driver shortages. These are doubtless good reasons, but I just wonder whether they would have announced those cuts if they had known the MP most affected was to be the transport secretary. I see that Gloucestershire County Council has “taken the very serious decision to report Stagecoach to the Traffic Commissioner” over the cuts.

I cannot see what good that will do.

The rest of the ministerial team has also been reshuffled. I hope Kevin Foster, who was actually shaping up to be a reasonable rail minister, enjoyed his 15 minutes of the red box.

The good news is that Huw Merriman has been appointed minister of state

The good news is that Huw Merriman has been appointed minister of state, the next rung down from secretary of state. Now Huw does understand transport and will not need to be taken through the idiot’s guide for new ministers, or not at least in terms of policy.

He has impressed as chair of the Transport Select Committee and it will be interesting to see how much free rein he is given. His appointment does of course mean that there is now a vacancy for a new chair of the committee. Under the rules of the House, Huw will have to be replaced by another Conservative MP. I cannot say that there are very many obviously good candidates.

In addition to Huw, there is Jesse Norman who has already done a tour d’horizon of government departments, having been a minister in the Foreign Office, in the Treasury, in BEIS (the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy) and served as Paymaster General. Oh, he has been at the Department for Transport before as well between 2017 and 2019. Like so many others in government, he is an Old Etonian. He put this prevalence down to Eton’s “ethos” of public service, which is a novel argument.

After Eton, again like so many others in the present government, he went into banking. He has written a number of books, including Breaking The Habits Of A Lifetime and After Euclid.

Then there is Richard Holden, the MP for North West Durham, very much in the red wall and sitting on a very small majority. He is 37 and apart from four years as a waiter in his late teens, he does not seem to have had a job outside Tory politics.

In addition to a great deal of time spent in Conservative Central Office, he was employed as a special adviser first to Chris “Failing” Grayling and then to ex-fireplace salesman Gavin Williamson. Personally, I think I would keep those roles off my CV.

Completing the present pack is the seemingly permanent fixture of Charlotte Vere, although unhelpfully with changed responsibilities.

But then again elevation to the Lords is for life, so perhaps it is not surprising she is still there.

So there we have it. The prime minister keeps talking about stability – it is his new buzzword. Is it too much to hope that we might now actually get some stability in terms of ministerial positions?

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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