There are leaves on the line and Boris Johnson’s bluster won’t get rid of them

The Integrated Rail Plan is a red hot mess. Course it is

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Thursday 18 November 2021 19:03
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There’s a cartoon joke doing the rounds online that goes thus: “How many Boris Johnson fans does it take to change a lightbulb? None. He’ll just tell them he’s changed it and then sit around in the dark applauding.”

He has now been prime minister for two and a half years, half a full term, and there exists no sign that this plan, if it can be called that, of government by saying and not by doing, is going to abate.

The Integrated Rail Plan is out. It is, as far as Johnson is concerned, the “biggest ever public investment in Britain’s rail network”. This is quite a claim, given that not hugely long ago, Britain did not have a rail network at all, but there we are.

Gareth Dennis, who is a railway engineer, writer and very busy frequenter of broadcast studios whenever trains are in the news, has not described the integrated rail plan as the biggest ever public investment in Britain’s rail network. He has called it “top-to-bottom bulls**t”. It is, he says, “a reannouncement of things that were already planned”, which will do “more harm to local train services than Beeching”. An achievement he did not think was possible, but they’ve managed it.

It’s a red-hot mess. Course it is. In the “northern powerhouse”, they’re still going to get the faster trains, but not the faster track they were meant to run on, so the extra capacity, which was every bit as much the point of it all as the higher speeds, will not come into existence.

Claims of broken promises on rail ‘total rubbish’, says Boris Johnson

The prime minister himself is so proud of the Integrated Rail Plan that he is journeying up and down the country by train in order to promote it, but appears to only be promoting via the “stories” feature on No 10’s Instagram account. For those that are not hugely into such things, the USP of Insta “stories” is that the comments are private. In other words, if it just so happens that anyone happens to make their feelings known to the prime minister about the Integrated Rail Plan and his little promotional tour of it, nobody else will be able to see them.

It is a wonder, in many ways, that he hasn’t alighted on this little outrage-dampening tactic before. If only he’d somehow tried to take down the standards commissioner via Instagram stories he might have got away with it. Instead the howls of justified rage are still going three weeks later.

You can be sure Johnson will have gamed out the raw politics of it. There’ll be many a focus group that’s told him that outside the media, and the loud voices of local elected officials and regional mayors, ordinary people don’t actually care that much about trains. People are enraged by their daily commute, but they don’t commute from Leeds to Sheffield, or Birmingham to Manchester. They commute from the suburbs to the town, and outside London, mainly by car or bus.

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But they speak to a wider reality, of course they do. There’s no clearer window into the state, or the absolute state, of a country than its transport infrastructure. Potholed roads are the key tell that a country is either poor or corrupt or usually both. Bad trains are the next sign. Spain has built a huge high speed network between all its big cities and it is a thing of wonder. The only high speed track in existence in the UK goes from central London and into Kent. It is especially laughable that one of the reasons given for not bothering with some of the upgrade works was that they were, in many cases, not due to come online until 2040.

Johnson has gone on, and will continue to go on, about levelling up, about making the UK “the best place in the world to live”, about a country whose “best days lie ahead”. There can be no doubt at all that he doesn’t believe that for a second. Or if he does, is not going to personally do anything to actually make it come to pass.

People who follow politics closely know that none of it’s true. That it’s all just bluster. But if he continues not even bothering to conceal it, to make it so glaringly obvious how little he cares, there is a chance that the little people might just see the light. That the applause in the darkness might dry up.

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