Tom Richmond: The strange tale of Chris Grayling, the Macavity-like Transport Secretary, on the run over the North, fares and East Coast deal

Illustrator Graeme Bandeira's cartoon of Chris Grayling.
Illustrator Graeme Bandeira's cartoon of Chris Grayling.
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JUST like TS Eliot’s mystery cat who proved so elusive in one of the poet’s great works, Chris Grayling is beginning to show Macavity-like tendencies as he vanishes from the scene of his political ‘crimes’.

The politician who is always first to take to the airwaves to defend Theresa May over Brexit – Eliot wrote of his feline friend ‘And when you think he’s half asleep, he’s always wide awake’ – is less forthcoming when it comes to transport.

But what the poet wrote of Macavity –‘He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare’ – can no longer be said of a vanishing Minister who required, for what it’s worth, a Downing Street vote of confidence this week.

First, Mr Grayling ‘snubbed’ a Parliamentary debate called to discuss his decision to downgrade two rail improvement programmes he promised to Yorkshire voters before the election.

Next, the Transport Secretary very conveniently found himself in sunny Qatar on official business on Tuesday when average train ticket prices rose by 3.4 per cent – more savvy Ministers would have foreseen the outcry. “I don’t think I’ve shirked the issue,” he said tamely after none of his deputies defended the fare hike – or their boss – in public.

Now, the absentee Minister – perhaps he should go by the title Macavity of Merton in deference to the London borough where he cut his political teeth – is facing mounting questions over the finances of the Virgin Trains East Coast rail franchise.

Unlike Eliot’s feline friend, Mr Grayling has to emerge into the open and explain himself to MPs and taxpayers.

Anything less would betray the Prime Minister’s spokesman who said that the Transport Secretary is doing “a good job” as political fur flies in Whitehall over reshuffle rumours and possible promotion, I kid you not, for the man who masterminded Mrs May’s 2016 leadership campaign.

The reason is this: when Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin empire teamed up with Stagecoach to take over long-distance rail services between London, Yorkshire and Scotland in 2015, it was agreed that the firms would pay £3.3bn for the privilege of running this route until 2023.

Signed off – in fairness – by Mr Grayling’s predecessor Patrick McLoughlin, the current Tory chairman, it ended six years of public ownership for the line following the collapse of both the GNER and National Express franchises.

Yet, when Mr Grayling hinted last month at the reopening of railway lines axed 50 years ago in the Beeching cuts, he also said that the current East Coast franchise would end in 2020 and a new partnership be formed. However the questions won’t go away:

1. What financial agreement has the Department for Transport reached with Stagecoach (the 90 per cent stakeholder in the route) and Virgin over the £2bn that they were due to hand over between 2020 and 2023?

2. Which Ministers and officials were present at meetings between the DfT and the franchise-holder and why did Mr Grayling not offer a full statement to Parliament when questioned by MPs on November 30? Asked if the £2bn will be repaid, he replied glibly: “Self-evidently...there will be new arrangements in place in 2020.”

3. Will there be a full tender process for the new franchise and what are the implications for taxpayers if Virgin and Stagecoach are not successful? The last Labour government stripped National Express of the right to bid to run rail services when it reneged upon its East Coast obligations in 2009. Shouldn’t the same principle apply?

4. Why, given the uncertainty, was a proposal by rival operator Grand Central to put on more services between Yorkshire and London rejected last month?

5. If the London to Scotland line isn’t sufficiently profitable, what assessment has been made of the impact of HS2 – high-speed rail – on its future viability?

This matters. If Sir Richard Branson and Sir Brian Souter, the tycoons behind the Virgin and Stagecoach empires, don’t fulfil their obligations, the country will be deprived of £2bn to invest in transport improvements like high-speed rail in the North or new rolling stock to replace this region’s clapped-out Pacer trains.

This was made clear by Labour peer Andrew Adonis when he resigned as head of the National Infrastructure Commission over the Government’s Brexit strategy – and Mr Grayling’s approach to the East Coast route.

“Handing a cheque worth hundreds of millions of pounds to Richard Branson and Brian Souter would be indefensible at the best of times but we are now at the worst of times with a Brexit squeeze on the public finances and with rail fares going through the roof,” he said. “The cost of this bailout is going to be a slashing of the national infrastructure programme and even bigger fare rises – and as that becomes apparent in Parliament and in the media I think Chris Grayling’s position is going to become untenable.”

Like Macavity, Chris Grayling can run. But, unlike TS Eliot’s mythical creature, he can’t hide forever and must provide the answers that taxpayers have a 
right to expect when he returns from Qatar. If not, he deserves a one-way ticket – cat-tle class – to political oblivion.