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Transport / Mass transit

“Why is this man transport secretary?” On the naked partisanship of Chris Grayling

Oh good, there’s more.

Yesterday, the Evening Standard revealed that transport secretary Chris Grayling had decided to block the expansion of Transport for London’s rail empire, describing it as mere “deckchair shifting”. In our report on the topic we speculated about three possible reasons for this: practical concerns, ideological ones, or nakedly political ones.

In today’s Evening Standard, there’s another top scoop on the subject, by Pippa Crerar. It begins as follows:

The Transport Secretary was today accused of putting party politics ahead of commuters after a leaked letter revealed he opposed handing over control of suburban rail to keep it “out of the clutches” of Labour.

(…)

…in a letter written before the new Mayor took over, he admitted he was against rail devolution to keep services away from any future Labour mayor, rather than because of the impact on commuters.

So. That settles that one.

The letter dates from 2013, when Conservative Boris Johnson was still mayor. Here’s the key passage:

“While I am generally a great supporter of what you are doing in London, I would not be in favour of changing the current arrangements – not because I have any fears over the immediate future, but because would like to keep suburban rail services out of the clutches of any future Labour Mayor.

Obviously similar concerns apply over a future Labour government as well, but the continuation of the system we have at the moment does at least mean that MPs and local authorities from outside the London area would have a remit over train services in our areas, which I would not like us to lose.”

Three thoughts on this:

1)  This is partisanship of the most shameless and disgusting sort. Chris Grayling is meant to be transport secretary for the entire country, not just for people who vote for him. That he would take a major policy decision based not on what is best for Britain’s commuters, but on how to best undermine his opponents, speaks volumes about Grayling’s statesmanship – and explains the level of esteem in which his achievements in previous ministerial roles, at justice and work & pensions, are held.

2) It also doesn’t really stack up on its own terms. As things stand, there are already a fair few commuters towns outside the London boundary, which are dependent on Transport for London for their travel arrangements: Amersham, Watford, Epping, Brentwood. They seem to get along fine: indeed, they seem to have better train services than most commuter towns that sit outside the TfL empire.

No mayor of London, of either party, has ever had a policy of running fewer services outside the city boundary, so as to boost those inside it. Partly that’s because it’d be stupid, but largely it’s because railways simply don’t work like that:  service levels are dependent on boring physical factors like track arrangements, signalling, the location of sidings and so forth. Political boundaries have nothing to do with it.

Does Grayling not understand this? If he doesn’t, why on earth is he transport secretary? And if he does, what on earth is he wibbling about?

3) While we’re on the topic of things Chris Grayling doesn’t seem to understand: why does he think that MPs and local authorities have any remit over franchising arrangements at the moment?

Okay, MPs can annoy the transport secretary, who can in turn annoy the train companies. But that’s a pretty indirect and weak form of accountability, as demonstrated by [insert example of terrible train service of your choice]. Local authorities, meanwhile, have no ability to control train services at all that I can see.

So why does Grayling believe that giving TfL a role in service commissioning would weaken accountability?

Once again: why is this man transport secretary?

I’m not the only one wondering that this afternoon. From the Standard:

Tory former minister Bob Neill called on Mr Grayling to stand down saying he had “lost confidence” in him as Transport Secretary.

The Bromley and Chislehurst MP told the Standard: “My discussions with him indicate to me that he’s acted for party reasons and not acted in the interests of London commuters.

“It’s pretty clear that he has a dogmatic opposition to rail devolution and I don’t think that’s a legitimate basis on which to take a decision. It demonstrates that he’s acted extremely badly. I don’t have confidence any more in him as Secretary of State.”

Bromley is of course a London constituency.

It takes a special talent to change a policy for nakedly partisan reasons, and still manage to alienate MPs from your party.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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