Tom Richmond: An electric shock that’s left the North derailed

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WHO knew what – and when? Nearly 10 days after the Government’s rail electrification plans for Yorkshire were put on hold, the awkward questions refuse to go away as George Osborne’s much-vaunted “Northern Powerhouse” is dubbed a “Northern Power Cut”.

Not only will critics be sceptical of any pronouncements on regional policy that the Chancellor chooses to make in Wednesday’s emergency Budget when he is also due to identify the £12bn of welfare savings that the Tories promised before the election, but there will be close scrutiny of other pledges that may – or may not – have been made in haste prior to polling day.

These are the headline-making promises made after the Conservatives concluded, erroneously, that the party’s best hope for May 7 was a hung Parliament in which they could blame any junior coalition partner for any policy u-turns.

Yet, as the decision to “pause” the electrification of the TransPennine Express and Midland Mainline rail routes has already proven, these commitments will backfire very quickly unless they are honoured.

This is borne out by correspondence at the end of February between Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin and his senior civil servant, Philip Rutnam, when the tender process was formally started for the TransPennine Express and Northern Rail franchises here in Yorkshire.

Though the Minister did – to his credit – stand up to the Department for Transport’s Permanent Secretary and insist that the rattle-trap Pacer services, little more than buses with train wheels bolted on, were scrapped, it is significant that McLoughlin requested the commissioning of “new-build diesel vehicles”.

He went on: “The railways need a long-term solution that will secure the provision of services on lines that are never likely to be electrified, I note that the latest forecasts predict a shortfall in diesel vehicles in the coming decades.”

Was McLoughlin already aware that the long-awaited electrification plans were about to hit the buffers? If so, why did he not order Osborne – and David Cameron – for that matter – to turn down their rhetoric?

These matters become even more pertinent in light of the questioning from backbench MPs to Ministers from the Department of Communities and Local Government. Challenged by Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox to explain when he first knew of the decision to halt the TransPennine upgrade, Communities Secretary Greg Clark pointedly ignored the question and said: “As for electrification, only 10 miles of line were electrified during the 13 years for which the last Government were in office, but we are committed to it.”

His deputy James Wharton – the Minister responsible for the so-called Northern Powerhouse – was equally dismissive of Leeds East MP Richard Burgon and said: “The Northern Powerhouse is about many things, not just transport.” And when Hull North MP Diana Johnson spoke of a “Northern power cut”, Wharton was contemptuous: “It is not about a cut; it is about delivering on our promises, growing our regional economies and delivering for the North.”

Yet this cavalier approach overlooked three salient points. First, the Tories have been in power since 2010 so blaming Labour no longer suffices. Second, the Prime Minister and Chancellor have repeatedly said that transport investment holds the key to unlocking Yorkshire’s economic potential. Third, Network Rail’s management difficulties are not new – the organisation has been known as “Network Fail” for a decade.

As such, this issue – and fallout – hinges on what the Transport Secretary meant when he requested diesel trains “for lines that are never likely to be electrified”. All those who believed Tory promises – or have been inconvenienced by overcrowded and late-running services – have a right to know the answer. For, if the Conservatives cannot provide convincing responses, how can they be trusted on, say, the European Union renegotiation, welfare cuts or the future of the National Health Service? It’s that profound.

BBC political editor Nick Robinson’s compelling Election Notebook is full of vignettes that can be categorised as “high comedy”. One of the most endearing is when the bespectacled Robinson is invited to the hotel room of Ed Balls because the then Shadow Chancellor wanted to show how he was rehearsing his 2014 party conference speech.

Propped on top of an ironing board was a portable fold-out lectern purchased from an online shop for travelling American preachers. Robinson takes up the story: “Then, stepping forward to show me how it’s possible to practise his speech without ever leaving his room, he knocks it to the ground and breaks it.”

In fairness, the public persona of the combative Balls was very different to the private, fun-loving family man who was always the first to volunteer to play the fool at a constituency engagement in Morley and Outwood.

But the problem is that Balls was part of a Labour high command that was totally out of touch. This is borne out by the extent to which Labour’s communications chief Tom Baldwin sought to intimidate those broadcasters who were not toeing the Opposition’s line.

What Labour’s PR team did not realise, however, is that it was the policies – rather than the messengers – that were wrong. It might be quietly amusing if it wasn’t so serious. For governments do invariably become complacent unless there is a strong opposition to keep them on their toes.

EVEN before the sun shone on the righteous, health organisations were working themselves into a frenzy about the need for people to drink plenty of fluids – and water in particular. Meanwhile the TUC appealed for workers to wear casual clothes, rather than any formal dress code, so its members could feel more comfortable. Yet the ‘Nanny State’ forgets that people have survived previous heatwaves. Thank God, the health and safety brigade weren’t about in the Second World War – or Britain truly would have been doomed.

A FUNDAMENTAL lesson of any childhood is “to respect your elders”. Yet trying telling this to today’s know-it-all politicians, celebrities and sports stars who are so cocooned in their own small worlds that their unappreciative of past deeds. Ahead of next week’s Ashes series, this dispiriting trait became even more relevant when Mike Brearley, the man who masterminded England’s unlikely comeback success against the Australians in 1981, said of a lengthy exchange with the self-centred Kevin Pietersen: “I’m not sure he knew who I was.” It says it all.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk