GIVEN that Chris Grayling – the Transport Secretary who doesn’t run the trains – will not resign after cancelling a Brexit freight contract awarded to a ferry firm with phantom ferries, it does beg this question: what can this Minister actually do?
And there is a very straightforward answer. Every day he remains in post – he is due to take transport questions in the Commons this morning – enhances the reputation of Estelle Morris.
Estelle who? She was the Education Secretary who resigned in November 2002 because she felt out of her depth – no pun intended given Mr Grayling’s mishaps over the Seaborne Freight contract – heading a major department and did not want to become a distraction.
And she never blamed others. A much-respected Schools Minister in Tony Blair’s first government, the cumulative effect of a number of decisions gradually began to erode her tenureship of the Department for Education after she had succeeded Sheffield’s David Blunkett.
And, to her credit, she recognised this. “I’m good at dealing with the issues and in communicating to the teaching profession. I am less good at strategic management of a huge department and I am not good at dealing with the modern media,” she wrote in her candid resignation letter to the PM. “All this has meant that with some of the recent situations I have been involved in, I have not felt I have been as effective as I should be, or as effective as you need me to be.”
Some, I recall, said the Minister jumped before she was pushed. Most, however, were far more charitable of her decision to take full responsibility for her department’s decisions. Either way, she had integrity – a word that will never be associated with the current Transport Secretary who was the subject of Jeremy Corbyn’s inquisition of Theresa May at PMQs 18 months after The Yorkshire Post first questioned Mr Grayling’s sincerity, and suitability for office, when broken promises over rail improvements in the North emerged.
And this is why the reluctance of Mr Grayling – a Minister who has redefined the meaning of the word ‘‘buck-passing’’ – to accept that he is not up to the job is just as contemptible as Theresa May’s refusal to do the right thing and sack her Transport Secretary for bringing public office into disrepute.
By leaving Mr Grayling at the helm, to use maritime parlance as HMS Government finds itself all at sea over Brexit and Seaborne’s fantasy ferries, the Prime Minister is signalling that misjudgments on this scale are acceptable when the public interest demands the highest standards of efficiency and proficiency.
No wonder the European Union seems relatively relaxed about a no-deal Brexit and unwilling to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with Mrs May.
With the Transport Secretary effectively this country’s logistics manager, responsible for the flow of trade, food and medical supplies from March 29 onwards, they have calculated that the risks are on this side of the English Channel.
And it makes the obfuscation of Mr Grayling all the more disengenuous when families and firms have seen their immediate futures entrusted with this walking calamity of a so-called public servant. For, even though DfT contracts with DFDS and Brittany Ferries to provide additional capacity do appear, for now, to be water-tight, the Seaborne Freight saga shows – yet again – why any faith in this Transport Secretary is so misplaced despite his longstanding loyalty to Mrs May.
When this curious case first came to light, he blagged it and said he was proud to be supporting a start-up business and due diligence had been undertaken. Yet, when it was confirmed that Seaborne Ferries had no ships to operate between Ostend and Ramsgate, Mr Grayling blamed the firm’s backers for pulling out.
He then had the audacity to claim that there had been no cost to the public purse – such evasiveness overlooking the £800,000 spent on consultants to assess a £13.8m contract which circumvented the DfT’s tendering protocols because of the urgency of no-deal contingencies. The National Audit Office says there were “significant execution risks”.
And then there was Mr Grayling’s response when Lib Dem MP Tom Brake asked: “What will it take for this Secretary of State to get the sack? Does the Secretary of State really believe he can claim no deal is an emergency that came to light only in October?”
The reply? “I have been absolutely clear that this procurement was dealt with very carefully by officials in my Department and in the Treasury who fully understood the legal implications of it, and it was approved by my accounting officer,” said the Transport Secretary.
In other words, Chris Grayling is happy, again, to hang others out to dry. Yet it is not what Estelle Morris would have done. And it is not what this country should tolerate from any Minister if public trust in politics – and politicians – is not to be sunk without trace.