How to fine tune the art of 'not being responsible' for anything

It's easy . . . take rail chaos, the fuel crisis, the Dome, pensions, interest rates, apologise and pass the buck

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"Who can I get for this?" That is one of the questions I ask with rising fury when stuck in a tunnel on a stationary train. This desire for violent revenge may not be the most dignified response to the never-ending chaos on the railways, but the stoicism of most travellers over the last 20 years has been part of the problem. Over decades the collapse of the public transport system has happened without a murmur.

"Who can I get for this?" That is one of the questions I ask with rising fury when stuck in a tunnel on a stationary train. This desire for violent revenge may not be the most dignified response to the never-ending chaos on the railways, but the stoicism of most travellers over the last 20 years has been part of the problem. Over decades the collapse of the public transport system has happened without a murmur.

Even so, if every traveller in recent years had dementedly screamed, "Who can I get for this?" as they waited for a train that never came we would still not have got an answer. That is part of the problem. There is no answer. Under public ownership the railways were badly run and under-funded, but at least we knew which body ultimately was responsible. It was the bloody government that was to blame or, more precisely, the bloody Treasury.

When I sit on that stationary train the smiling, charming Ken Clarke or the melancholic Norman Lamont sometimes come into my mind. Like their predecessors, they starved the railways of funds. That is why John Major's government privatised the railways. I have heard the former transport minister Steve Norris say as much. We only privatised the railways because we could not get the funds from the Treasury, he once said on Radio 5 Live.

Now we are in a new era where virtually everyone is to blame. Even the forces of nature get a look in. There are the passengers who have the cheek to want efficient, fast trains; the leaves that dare to fall on the line; Railtrack (until its boss offered to resign, at which point it became a near-saintly organisation, the saviour of our railways) and the train companies. Somewhere in this galaxy of incompetents there are ministers as well. Everyone is responsible, so no one is responsible.

This government has turned "not being responsible" into something of an art form. By this I do not mean that ministers have failed to accept responsibility when they are directly associated with cock-ups. The opposite is the case. One of the ways Tony Blair has changed the style of politics in Britain is that he does, quite often, apologise for his mistakes. Indeed he pops up most days to say "sorry". From the farcical elections to the Welsh Assembly to the Millennium Dome and pensions, Blair has admitted that the Government has got it wrong.

The Government's knack of "not being responsible" takes another form altogether. For an administration that is supposed to be stuffed full of control freaks it has given away power in areas which are politically sensitive. Quite often when damaging headlines erupt, a minister can calmly walk into a studio and say, "This is nothing to do with me".

Gordon Brown led the way when he handed over control of interest rates to the Bank of England. At a stroke the politics was taken out of an issue that had wrecked previous governments. This was a brilliant move, so brilliant that Brown has become less enthusiastic about the euro ever since. Now, whenever the mighty Chancellor is challenged about high interest rates or the high pound he can say, truthfully, that this a matter for the Bank of England. It has worked so well I would not be too surprised if in the second term Brown handed over responsibility for judging entry into the euro to an independent committee. I can hear him on the Today programme now. "Jim, judging when the economic conditions are right is not a matter for the Government."

Other ministers have followed Brown's lead. The shambles over the lottery is nothing to do with Chris Smith. The powers lie with an independent Lottery Commission.

If a local authority introduces congestion charging it will be nothing to do with this car-loving government. But didn't this government invent congestion charging? Well, yes it did, and when ministers are addressing a greenish audience they elicit a big cheer for this. But if motorists protest, they have an answer as well: "Nothing to do with us. It is up to the council to decide".

Then there is the case of the appalling London Underground. In a few years' time, when I am still stuck in a Tube tunnel, who will I get for this? "This is all Ken Livingstone's fault," I can hear ministers saying. "He is responsible now." Sure enough, ministers have conveniently handed over the wretched shambles to Ken. But Mayor Livingstone will say: "This is nothing to do with me. I inherited a public/private finance arrangement that I fiercely opposed." Looking for someone to blame I will run around in circles, which is more than the trains on the Circle Line manage to do.

John Prescott must take some responsibility for imposing a financial system on the new Greater London Assembly, although the Treasury is in the frame again on this one. But it is too easy to blame Prescott for the whole wretched chaos on the railways. He inherited a crisis more severe than anything Margaret Thatcher had to tackle when she came to power after the Winter of Discontent in 1979. He has started the almost impossible task of putting the jigsaw back together again and has used his political weight to get a large sum of money from the Treasury.

Still, he should have acted earlier, insisting on a transport Bill in the 1999 Queen's Speech. He has been too loyal a deputy to Blair at times, a team player rather than a stroppy bastard. Also from the beginning he should have brought in a regulator to terrify Railtrack and the train companies. The view from within Downing Street is that the railways need a Chris Woodhead figure to bully them into a better performance. Woodhead may not be the subtlest of performers, but an equivalent figure for the railways would be a joy to watch. Who do I get for this? It is OK, the regulator is getting them on our behalf.

Prescott should also have accepted Gerald Corbett's proposal that the Government buy a stake in Railtrack. Ministers backed off partly because they did not want to suffer any political embarrassment by being directly linked with the chaos of the railways. It was that new art form again of not seeking any direct responsibility.

But here is the twist. I suspect that the Government will get a fair amount of the blame anyway. Ministers were in the frame for the fuel dispute, although there was not a lot more they could have done to prevent it. As Tony Blair said at the Labour conference - he was apologising again - "It happened under my watch". With more and more people stranded for hours on rain-soaked, run-down platforms, as far away from Cool Britannia as it is possible to be, they will lose their stoicism.

"Who can I get for this?" they will ask. Perhaps flickering images of past chancellors, transport secretaries and St Gerald Corbett will race through their minds. But in the current volatile political climate the most likely settled response will be, "I will get the Government for this". It has happened under Tony Blair's watch.

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