If Michael Fallon were selling cars instead of the Royal Mail, he would be less Arthur Daley than Jack Barclay, the silver-tongued ex-airman whose Berkeley Square dealership is still the go-to showroom for Bentleys. Today, he purred reassurances. For the customers: a legally enshrined Universal Service Obligation guaranteeing a six-day-a-week service everywhere in the country and a bright future for the still publicly owned Post Offices.
For the workers: 10 per cent of the shares and unchanged terms and conditions. And for everyone else: “the objective of ensuring that value for money for the taxpayer is achieved”. The Opposition wasn’t buying, however. It’s an oddity that Labour emerges as hardline monarchists scandalised – as Fallon’s opposite number Ian Murray put it – by the Government “playing politics with the Queen’s head”.
And the Coalition – in its critics’ eyes – was recklessly flouting the famous pledge of Margaret Thatcher that privatising the Royal Mail was a step too far. Nor was Murray convinced that a future government would resist pressure to abandon universal service.
So Fallon had a job, which was to convince not only the public and investors but also, perhaps, members of the CWU which is both holding a strike ballot against the sale, and trying to persuade Labour to promise re-nationalisation.
Would Labour make that pledge, he kept taunting them. And it would be “interesting” to see whether the employees would turn down the share offer. Whatever the rights and wrongs, Fallon exuded competence as well as calm, rather more so than one or two of his cabinet colleagues, in fact. Labour’s Michael Connarty said it was “not surprising” the minister was promoting it since “when someone gets old they will do anything to get into a ministerial car”.
The slur doesn’t work with Fallon, who has been committed to privatisation since before Connarty became an MP. And – unlike Dennis Skinner, who said that it was a “disgrace” that the “lickspittle Lib Dems” were supporting the sale – Connarty was ignoring the fact that Fallon’s Lib Dem boss, Vince Cable, is a backer. But it raises a point. If you’re a minister below cabinet rank, as Fallon is, it doesn’t hurt to have your big day when there’s reshuffle talk in the air.