GIVEN BORIS Johnson’s childhood ambition was to become ‘world king’, it is ironic that his days as Prime Minister could be numbered before he has even unpacked his bags in 10 Downing Street.
Never before has the first 100 days of a premiership been so crucial – this takes Britain up to October 31 when Johnson intends to lead the country out of the European Union.
And, if the new Tory leader is still unscathed, he should eclipse the 119 days that George Canning, the shortest-serving PM in history, achieved before his life was cut short in 1827 by pneumonia.
Much might depend on whether Johnson does now call a very snap general election – and, crucially, on his terms – rather than risk a Queen’s Speech, or Budget, being defeated and bringing down his government before he begins to address Brexit.
Yet Johnson must use his first days, weeks, and, potentially, months to prove that the Tories are, once again, the party of competence. By this, I mean that he leads a common-sense government which is on the side of the people, particularly the poor and low-waged, in the best traditions of One Nation conservatism, while making sure taxpayers’ money is spent wisely.
And given that he boasted “I will do for the North what I was able to do for Crossrail” during the campaign, he can begin by reading the excoriating Public Accounts Committee report into delays to the new railway in London where Johnson was mayor from 2008-2016.
Due to have opened in December 2018, it may not be fully open until “as late as spring 2022”. So much for Johnson’s famed ‘can-do’ spirit. Given “the scale and complexity of the remaining work”, MPs are scathing of the “over-optimism” of Crossrail’s deadlines. Again, Johnson needs to show realism rather than embarking upon flights of fancy.
The report also shows why Johnson’s government needs to overhaul the planning – and construction – of new infrastructure to ensure that both HS2, and also Northern Powerhouse Rail, are built on time – and on budget.
For, while the new PM will say Crossrail Ltd was a separate entity, the lessons are numerous. By splitting the construction work into 36 separate contracts, it meant there was no co-ordination and no one at the Department for Transport offering oversight.
It does not end here. It cites poor planning by the DfT – this, in fairness, precedes Chris Grayling’s mismanagement of the department – and the bonuses sanctioned to Crossrail’s then-chief executive, Andrew Wolstenholme, towards the end of Johnson’s mayoralty.
He received £481,000 in 2015-16 and £160,000 in 2016-17 in addition to an eye-wateringly high salary. Not only were these rewards for failure, a trait that should go against Tory tenets, but it was indicative of Johnson’s inattention to detail as his focus moved from City Hall to the House of Commons.
Wolstenholme was not alone. Others enjoyed similar benevolence from the public purse and the Public Accounts Committee wants a full review of pay, bonuses and redundancy arrangements at the DfT and its partner agencies like Crossrail and HS2.
However Johnson should go further and apply this to the whole of Whitehall – too much money is going to waste on such pay-offs when people in the real world would be sacked for such shoddiness. And this is before costs rose by £2.8bn to £17.6bn and counting, while shiny new trains, worth £1bn, stand idle in railway sidings waiting for Crossrail to be completed.
As the PAC concludes: “We have witnessed cost increases and delays on major rail projects several times over the past few years and the Department for Transport still does not appear to have got a grip of the problem. Until the Department properly embeds the lessons learned from the programme, we remain sceptical about its ability to oversee major rail projects.”
This is relevant because Johnson claims Crossrail to be one of his greatest achievements. It is not. It has undermined confidence in this country’s ability to build new infrastructure and makes it harder to win the political, economic and social argument over HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail at a time when the need to increase capacity on the railways has never been more important from an environmental point of view – or in fulfilling the country’s mission when it comes to social mobility.
And, while this is just one example, it is indicative of the need for Boris Johnson, as Prime Minister, to appoint a team of Ministers – and experts – who know how to make things happen, and respect taxpayers’ money, rather than wait for events to unfold around them.
For, while Johnson’s days will be dominated by dilemmas over Brexit, snap elections and whether he can even outlast the bombastic Brian Clough’s shortlived 44 days in charge of a slumbering Leeds United, the rest of the country wants a Government which can get Britain moving again and respond to the big domestic issues, from infrastructure investment to social care, before he, too, has to pack his bags.