Tony McNulty: All aboard the transport express: 'Don't give me brick walls - tell me how to do it'

As Ken Livingstone will testify, the minister of state speaks his mind and delivers deals for London and the railways. He talks to Clayton Hirst
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He was "bloody stupid", "profoundly wrong" and "offensive". Tony McNulty isn't a politician to mince his words. And when speaking of London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, the minister of state for railways and the capital's transport system is especially blunt.

He was "bloody stupid", "profoundly wrong" and "offensive". Tony McNulty isn't a politician to mince his words. And when speaking of London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, the minister of state for railways and the capital's transport system is especially blunt.

There's condemnation of the Mayor's "Nazi jibe" to a journalist, which was at the centre of a row that blew up during the week that Olympic officials arrived in London to judge the city's bid. "I don't care what his beef is with Associated Newspapers and the Evening Standard, it was the wrong thing to say and he should apologise," says McNulty.

Then there are Livingstone's comments on the Middle East peace process. "I don't think it is any of his business to tell Israel and the international community what he thinks of Ariel Sharon at a time when hopefully, with [the new Palestinian President, Mahmoud] Abbas in place, we are moving gently towards the re-invigoration of the peace process," says McNulty. "Get on with London, Ken."

Livingstone raised the minister's hackles again last week with comments at a trade show in Cannes on how the £10bn Crossrail scheme will be funded. "There is plenty of talk going on - some of it very, very loudly in France - which is not terribly helpful," McNulty says.

Direct and sometimes confrontational, McNulty doesn't shy away from a fight. Nevertheless, the MP for Harrow East - who spent two and a half years as a government whip and worked for the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott - sees the Mayor as someone he can do business with. The feeling is reciprocal. Livingstone says: "Tony McNulty is a fine transport minister and has given tremendous backing for London's bid to stage the Olympic Games in 2012. On other issues, just as I have my own views, I respect Tony's right to disagree with them."

Their relationship was cemented last July. McNulty was the man who brokered an unprecedented Treasury commitment to provide grants to Transport for London for five years. This allowed the Mayor to launch a £10bn programme under which schemes like the East London Line extension and the Thames Gateway road bridge will get built. "The deal was done to give London stability in terms of funding. I am enormously proud of that," says McNulty.

The deal didn't come without a fight. "When I first came to Transport, people giggled when I said I wanted to see progress on Crossrail and work towards the East London Line. I said, 'Don't give me brick walls - tell me how to do it.' "

According to McNulty, even the Mayor was surprised when he clinched the deal. "Ken went away [on holiday] on the Friday and I phoned him on the Monday. When I finally got hold of him, it was, 'Aw, when I left I didn't think there would be a deal at all,' " says McNulty, imitating Livingstone's accent.

Last September, he was promoted to Minister of State at the Department for Transport, with part-responsibility for the third reorganisation of the railways by the current Labour Government. By the end of this year, the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) - set up by Prescott - will be wound up. Its functions will be shared between Network Rail and the Department for Transport.

McNulty says that because the railways have undergone so much change, there must be a period of stability. But, even as the Railways Bill goes though Parliament, he raises questions over the performance of Network Rail. Last week, Chris Bolt, the rail regulator, urged the company's remuneration committee to consider cutting incentive payments to senior executives. This followed the revelation that train travellers would have difficulty booking cheaper advanced tickets for Easter because Network Rail was unable to say which tracks would be closed for engineering. While refusing to comment on whether bonuses should be paid, McNulty says: "Network Rail ... needs to get a far stronger grip on giving indications on when work will affect timetables."

He also hints that the company's system of governance - derived from 113 "members" made up of rail industry executives, interest groups and the public - needs reforming. "If we thought it was all in order, we wouldn't be saying to Network Rail, 'It would be nice if you could look at your accountability and governance.'"

Today, one of the most striking features of Britain's railways is its complexity. While the current review will go some way towards simplifying the structure, working out how it is financed (a mix of bonds, government grants, fares and a merry-go-round of payments between the private companies) is a mind-bending exercise. As a result, there are fears that the Government is preparing to cut by stealth the amount of money going into the railways.

While McNulty admits that the industry will be required to cut costs, he says there are no plans to reduce net expenditure. "While I am railways minister, that is certainly not something I will be arguing for."

He also dismisses suggestions that the Government is planning a cull of under-used stations and lines. "Is there a massive agenda to start closing rural lines and smaller stations? Absolutely not. Does there need to be a root-and-branch look at how we utilise every aspect of the network? Yes, through the franchises, utilisation strategies and regional planned assessments."

Instead of cutting routes, McNulty points to proposals to boost capacity on the railways through new lines. He is currently steering the Crossrail Bill through Parliament, and the east-west railway in London is due to be completed in 2014.

The minister has also dusted off plans, first envisaged by the SRA, for a £33bn high-speed line from London to Scotland. "We will look at whether there is a substantive need for it. Without speculating, there probably is. Realistically, I would say that [this will be built] in the middle or the back end of the next decade."

On some of the plans, McNulty is expected to work with the equally plain-speaking Rod Eddington, the outgoing chief executive of British Airways, who was last week hired as a government transport adviser.

McNulty sees himself as the right sort of person to drive the projects forward. "I want to deliver - that is what pushes me on. I am not interested just in the lines to take - the defensive stuff, trying to hide under a rock every time the Government is in trouble."

In a swipe at some of his colleagues, he says ministers should be prepared to stand by and defend their decisions. "What really sours my cornflakes in the morning is when I listen to the radio and they say, 'We asked for a government minister to come on but they declined.' When I have anything to do with it, then they won't be able to say that, because I'll be on there, even if I'm taking the flak."

With his latest comments on the Mayor, you'd better listen out for McNulty on a radio near you soon.

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 3 November 1958.

Education: BA in political theory, University of Liverpool; MA in political science, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University.

Career (1983): lecturer at University of North London.

1986: Labour councillor, London Borough of Harrow.

1990: deputy leader of the Labour group, Harrow.

1995: Labour group leader, Harrow.

1997: MP for Harrow East.

1997: private secretary to David Blunkett, then Education Secretary.

1999: assistant government whip, Foreign Office.

2001: government whip, Cabinet Office.

2002: parliamentary under-secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

2003: parliamentary under-secretary, Department for Transport.

2004: minister of state, Department for Transport.

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