Tom Richmond: Minister backtracking at high speed over rail

THE words spoken by Tory MP Andrew Jones in the aftermath of his promotion to the Department for Transport are worth repeating here in light of the Government’s betrayal of rail travellers in Yorkshire.

“This is a national role but I do think we haven’t had our fair share of investment in the North and I will make sure the voice from the North is heard much more fully in future,” said Mr Jones as he was assigned his red box.

This statement could not have been clearer – the Harrogate and Knaresborough MP was going to champion this region’s interests from within the corridors of power.

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If only.

Fast forward two months and it has now fallen to Mr Jones to defend the indefensible: the postponement of the electrification of the TransPennine Express and Midland Mainline rail routes which was such a prominent feature of the Tory party’s election campaign.

It is even more embarrassing for Mr Jones because he spent the period prior to the election heading a task force which concluded that the railway line linking his Harrogate constituency with Leeds and York should be a priority for electrification. His expertise on this matter is one reason why he answered David Cameron’s summons to 10 Downing Street to become a Minister.

Yet it does not bode well for him as the much-vaunted Northern Powerhouse becomes a Northern Power Cut – the management difficulties at Network Rail existed when Mr Jones undertook his appraisal.

And Railway Minister Claire Perry, a colleague of Mr Jones, offered little hope when pressed by Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland on the issue. “Network Rail is currently assessing the case for further electrification of the rail network, including the line from Leeds to York via Harrogate. It plans to publish a draft update to the industry electrification strategy in due course,” she said.

It was hardly a ringing endorsement of the announcement in early March – two months before Britain went to the polls – that Harrogate could look forward to a 21st century railway.

It was also at odds with another pronouncement by Mr Jones at the outset of his Ministerial career: “Investment in transport helps to encourage economic growth, as well as impacting on the quality of life for people.”

With London’s transport commissioner Sir Peter Hendy beginning work at Network Rail on Thursday, and conducting a nationwide review of planned infrastructure projects, this uncertainty will only play into the hands of those commuters, campaigners and critics who believe the Tory party has over-promised and under-achieved.

This was reflected by the tough questioning of David Cameron at PMQs before a Budget in which Opposition leader Harriet Harman was merciless and said: “When it comes to the railways, perhaps we have the wrong sort of Government on the track.” It was a point well made.

Yorkshire’s only advantage is that it has two Ministers at the under-fire Department for Transport. As well as the aforementioned Mr Jones having specific responsibility for the Northern Powerhouse, his colleague Robert Goodwill – the Scarborough and Whitby MP – is overseeing devolution policies and planning for HS2.

They must now use their influence and get these delayed plans back on the track at the earliest opportunity. For, if they do not, they will have no other option open to them other than to put county before country and resign.

A RARE event happened in the House of Commons the other day – MPs spent four hours debating foreign affairs and, specifically, the contention that Britain might have to contemplate RAF airstrikes against Isis targets in Syria in the wake of the Tunisia beach massacre that claimed the lives of 30 Britons.

It is likely to be the last setpiece discussion before this autumn’s Strategic Security and Defence Review unless an international tragedy forces the Government to recall Parliament over summer for the possible authorisation of military intervention in the Middle East.

Yet why are Parliamentarians so reluctant to debate foreign affairs and the relentless rise of Islamic extremism? For once, I agree with Andrew Mitchell – the former minister who was brought down by the “Plebgate” scandal.

There should be a two-day Commons debate, ahead of not only the SSDR and any military deployment, to discuss Britain’s role in the world. After all, the landscape is very different to the aftermath of the July 7 suicide bombings 10 years ago. Then Isis had not even gained a foothold in Iraq and Syria. Now it is even more pernicious than al-Qaida.

What a shame Commons leader Chris Grayling said MPs were busy with the Budget, the European Union and Scottish devolution. I beg to differ. After all, Parliamentarians and legislators have no more onerous task than maintaining this country’s national security.

BBC political editor Nick Robinson’s Election Notebook continues to make embarrassing reading for ex-Labour leader Ed Miliband, not least his decision to unveil a six-point masterplan in last September’s career-ending party conference speech.

Why six points? Robinson recalls an exchange with Michael Heseltine when he was preparing to challenge Margaret Thatcher for the Tory leadership. He’d just announced a 10-point plan to clean up Britain’s inland waterways .

When asked for detail, Hezza paused and said that it didn’t matter what the points were as long as the canal and river network improved. “There won’t be nine points and there won’t be 11,” he boomed before putting the phone down.

THIS week’s Budget marked George Osborne’s ascendancy and the fact that the Chancellor is now favourite to succeed David Cameron – a scenario that was unthinkable five years ago. It also marks the continuing emergence of the Tories as the new party of workers while Labour are the party of welfare claimants and the trade unions – a dividing line that will dominate the build-up to the next election in 2020.

IT’S game, set and match to readers of The Yorkshire Post who forwarded my criticisms of the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage to the Corporation. Their efforts led to the awful set that was the backdrop to the Wimbledon 2Day highlights programme being ditched on Monday within hours of the column being published – and all power to them. It’s just a shame Clare Balding persisted with asking John McEnroe infantile questions like whether a baseball cap can make a difference to a player’s performance. You cannot be serious? Yes I am. Still there’s hope that normal service will be restored in time for next year’s tournament with John Inverdale back in the highlights hot seat that he had made his own.