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Tom Richmond: Never mind Brexit – failing Chris Grayling is derailing the Tories by himself

How is Chris Grayling still Transport Secretary?
How is Chris Grayling still Transport Secretary?
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THERESA MAY and her advisers appear to be bracing themselves for another snap election in a bid to end the Brexit deadlock. The belief – after the PM’s humiliation at the Salzburg summit – is that no scenario will command sufficient support in Parliament.

However, Tory strategists are misguided if they think they can keep going back to the people until they get the answer they want, and the numbers they need, to neutralise Remain and Leave dissidents.

Britain voted – albeit narrowly – to leave the EU in June 2016 and Mrs May called a pre-emptive election last year to give her a personal mandate to implement Brexit.

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What happened? Mrs May lost her Commons majority – and much credibility – because the campaign became dominated by domestic policies.

And the same, I venture, would happen again if there was a fourth nationwide poll in as many years after the 2016 EU referendum was sandwiched by the 2015 and 2017 general elections.

For, while Brexit is fundamental to this country’s future governance and is just six months away, it’s still not the top priority for all those families who are not political obsessives. They expect their leaders to lead and are more exercised by the state of the NHS, social care, housing and their local school – the day-to-day issues which impact upon living standards. This is how they would interpret any election or so called “People’s Vote” referendum.

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And, if Mrs May believes she can take the commuter vote for granted, the Tories are delusional after her Salzburg snub overshadowed a devastating inquiry by the Office of Road and Rail (ORR) which said this summer’s chaos on the railways was exacerbated by a lack of leadership, accountability and responsibility.

Yet, while Transport Secretary Chris Grayling hopes a review into rail franchising will buy time, it won’t when the public’s anger is just as palpable as political disagreements over Brexit.

For, as Mrs May was being snubbed in Salzburg, commuter Madeleine Convery tweeted: “Two days of nearly 2 hours to get home due to cancellations. It’s only 30 miles from Manchester to Dewsbury and I am on a so-called express route. No compensation could make up for how I feel right now. This needs sorting urgently.”

She was not alone. Dozens of others long-suffering Trans-Pennine Express and Northern passengers posted messages explaining how their daily lottery on the railways is continuing because no one in charge appreciated the folly of introducing botched timetable changes when Network Rail engineering work overran.

Not only are these commuters paying a financial and social price, but they’re incredulous that the Macavity-like Mr Grayling – known as ‘Failing Grayling’ – still refuses to accept any responsibility.

Even the ORR report reveals the Department for Transport’s culpability. Paragraph 48 says: “The inquiry has found that the DfT’s North of England Programme Board was aware of the consequential risks to the May 2018 timetable.” It gets worse. The DfT then disclosed that it does “not have a systematic, formal way of sharing these reports”. Why not?

And while Mr Grayling blames those in the rail industry who were advising him, he clearly did not have the expertise to challenge them. This alone should be a resigning matter.

No commuter is, therefore, going to forgive Mrs May – or the Government – when livelihoods, already uncertain owing to Brexit, are being put at further risk by a minister whose ineptitude is symptomatic of a wider malaise in an administration paralysed by Brexit.

For while Mrs May does not want to lose one of the few Ministers who will still defend her in public (both cut their political teeth on Merton Council in the 1990s), this misplaced loyalty is doing lasting damage to the PM’s credibility.

And it’s highlighted by George Muir, the former head of the Association of Train Operating Companies, in response to the ensuing debate about who – if anyone – is in charge of Britain’s railways.

“We all know what the answer is: the Department for Transport. It is the overlord of the railway. It does a good job planning the railway and funding it (better than has ever happened before) but it is bad at fixing problems,” he wrote. “When serious cross-industry problems boil up, as is inevitable from time to time, it is the job of the overlord to step in.”

He, too, is not alone. Lilian Greenwood, chair of the Commons transport committee, said Mr Grayling carried “responsibility for the overall system, including establishing clear decision-making structures and lines of accountability. He clearly did not do so.”

Yet, while Mr Grayling’s job, for now, appears to be safe which, in itself, is damning about the state of the Government, it must not preclude ministers from reforming domestic policies – such as making the responsibilities of the Transport Secretary, and other rail chiefs, clear in legislation.

For, when the next election or referendum comes, it won’t just be Brexit that derails Theresa May and the Government. It will also be the trains and ministers’ abject failure to realise that people in the real world just want to get to and from work on time. To them, it is as important – if not more so – than Brexit.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk