One of the oddest consequences of Brexit? That our hapless transport secretary has survived this long

Chris Grayling has the most unfortunate habit of creating chaos and failure in every department that has the misfortune to have him dumped in it

Friday 01 March 2019 18:53
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Michael Portillo calls Chris Grayling 'most incompetent minister of all-time'

Chris Grayling, MP for Epsom and Ewell and, for the moment, secretary of state for transport, does have an unfortunate name. Google the phrase “failing Grayling” and more than a million results are retained. It is a headline writer’s dream, so much so that Mr Grayling’s aides have contacted the media to request that they no longer use it – an elementary, counterproductive error in the spin doctor’s book of dos and don’ts. In a way, though, it is quite fitting that failing Grayling should employ a failing press team as well.

If Mr Grayling’s only problem was the mischievous attentions of media folk he would not have much cause for concern, and nor would the government. Mr Grayling has the far more unfortunate habit of creating chaos and failure in every department that has the misfortune to have him dumped in it. The latest double whammy of failures is the £33m that the treasury is having to hand over to Eurotunnel after Mr Grayling botched contracts for cross-Channel capacity in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The ferry scheme has already suffered double humiliation: a valuable contract was handed to a company with no ferries, which then walked away when its principal financial backer pulled out.

It is difficult to think of any other, relatively minor, act of public administration that has suffered quite so many U-turns and mockery. The scriptwriters behind The Thick of It would be hard pressed to squeeze much more incompetence into the episode than Mr Grayling and his hapless department managed in a few months. Jeremy Corbyn even had the Tories – including the prime minister – rolling about laughing when he recently admonished her office for handing the advanced copy of her PMQs statement to him too late. “I can only assume she entrusted it to the transport secretary to deliver it to me,” he said, drily.

Mr Grayling’s recent mishap came rapidly – more rapidly than a Northern suburban rail service – after the National Audit Office published a damning report on the part-privatisation of the probation service. This was undertaken during Mr Grayling’s spell at the Ministry of Justice. The NAO stated that the ministry had “set itself up to fail” while Chris Grayling ignored warnings over contracting out the supervision of criminals. The report read: “Its rushed rollout created significant risks that it was unable to manage. These have had far-reaching consequences. Not only have these failings been extremely costly for taxpayers, but we have seen the number of people on short sentences recalled to prison skyrocket.”

The NAO is not given to puns and frivolity, so their frequent use of the word “failing” may be taken to be a genuine objective assessment on Mr Grayling’s performance, rather than an attempt to have some more fun at his expense. Indeed the £467m it has cost taxpayers is no laughing matter – leaving aside the damage to people trying to rebuild their lives after a custodial sentence. Society has enough trouble without “skyrocketing” rates of light offenders being recalled to hard-pressed prisons. Mr Grayling also tried to make sure that when they got back in their overcrowded cells they would not be permitted to have books sent to them.

The public also hardly need reminding of the appalling mess that Mr Grayling presided over with the introduction of new timetables for Northern and Southern trains. The overhaul made the lives of many travellers, including those commuting to London from his parliamentary constituency, utterly miserable. Some passengers said they had to move or change jobs because of the fiasco. Mr Grayling has a huge majority; but he has not served his electorate well.

The minister claimed that he didn’t design the timetables, which is true; but the ultimate responsibility for the way the system is run – or not run – lies with him. The public expect him to at least fix the mess the railway operators created. As for the “fake traffic jam” on the M20 that he engineered to recreate the conditions of a chaotic Brexit? Even that failed, with only 89 of 150 lorries turning up.

There seems to be a pattern developing here, apart from the constant, baleful presence of Mr Grayling. First, we see major reforms and operational changes being rushed through without sufficient care or, indeed, funding. In some cases there is a paramount need to cut costs, radically and rapidly; but the end result is that the taxpayer ends up out of pocket. He cuts first and asks questions later – too late, as it turns out, for the good of the public finances.

Second, the prosaic Mr Grayling is a bit of a quiet ideologue. His faith in privatisation and private sector partnerships seems to have no limits. It is as if his knee-jerk reaction to problems with public services or restraining public spending is to call in the private sector, outsourcing and contracting out as he goes.

Third, Mr Grayling either has some strange kompromat on the prime minister or she is so weakened that she has to retain him to avoid yet another resignation. The secret of his survival is that Theresa May is actually personally loyal to him, an endearing but dangerous virtue, he having run her leadership campaign in 2016. Besides, she is so short of Eurosceptics willing and capable of being promoted to cabinet level that she simply has no choice but to keep him. Though trivial in the great scheme of things, the unnaturally prolonged cabinet career of the transport secretary is one of the oddest, and most unwelcome, consequences of Brexit.

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