Tom Richmond: Five questions Theresa May must answer over Chris Grayling and Yorkshire transport farce
The clue came when the irked and irritated Tory leader turned on her inquisitor – Halifax MP Holly Lynch – and, instead, preached about the Government’s investment in the railways rather than answering the question about failing services. That’s always the tell-tale sign.
I do, in fact, have some sympathy for Prime Ministers during this weekly ordeal. It’s unfair to expect them to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every policy – these exchanges could be more constructive if Downing Street had some advance knowledge of the subject areas.
Yet Mrs May does not deserve to get off lightly. As this newspaper revealed, Mr Grayling gave a clear impression during the election last May that the Midland Mainline electrification would still go ahead when, in fact, the National Audit Office now reveals that the decision had already been taken two months previously to scrap this scheme and others.
And, to those who say the Prime Minister can’t micro-manage every area of policy – or recite every train timetable! – she, too, was party to this betrayal because the NAO says Mrs May asked for further information about the impact of scaling back rail improvements in South Wales.
This is why, after nearly two years of stop-start policy-making that has proved to be as unreliable as the ubiquitous Pacer trains running on commuter routes here, that Mrs May is duty-bound to answer five follow-up questions.
1. When did she realise that the Midland Mainline decision was at odds with commitments that the Tory party first made to this region during the 2015 election campaign – and why did she allow Mr Grayling to mislead voters here?
2. Why, if the Prime Minister is so committed to the Northern Powerhouse and investing in the region’s infrastructure, did she allow her former aides Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill to marginalise former chancellor George Osborne’s vision?
3. If Mrs May believes the North is getting a fair funding deal after decades of under-investment, why does she think that this view is not shared by the region’s rail commuters and motorists?
4. There are reports that London’s £14.8bn Crossrail scheme, which will benefit Mrs May’s Maidenhead constituency, will require a £500m bailout from taxpayers so it can open as planned later this year. Given Mr Grayling did not deny this possibility in the Commons yesterday, what assurances can she give that this won’t be at the expense of schemes in the North?
5. Finally, given the Transport Secretary’s advocacy for a second Crossrail project in the capital intended to link Hertfordshire with Surrey where Mr Grayling is, coincidentally, an MP will she state – on the record – that the modest £2.9bn overhaul of the long-neglected trans-Pennine line, now being developed by Transport for the North, will take precedence?
Five questions on a day that saw the East Coast Main Line renationalised in a major U-turn, they are not only fundamental to transport policy but also to confidence, and trust, in Mrs May’s administration after a succession of snubs to this region by Mr Grayling saw him likened to Macavity, TS Eliot’s mystery cat.
Yet they’re also angry that they’re simply being offered tokenism by a Government that regards this region as an irritating inconvenience and further evidenced by yesterday’s PMQs, when Mrs May was told about deteriorating services on the Northern franchise as Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, called for an inquiry.
Take Crossrail which will run from Reading to London. The slick state-of-the-art services – subject to last-minute hitches being fixed – will be in addition to the 16 scheduled services that already run between 7am-8am each morning. Half that number run from Leeds to Manchester, by way of comparison.
Similar in length, and importance, Crossrail will put 1.5 million people, including Mrs May’s constituents, within 45 minutes of London while train speeds across the Pennines barely reach 50mph. They’re that slow because of the Victorian infrastructure.
It does not end here. Hull – denied rail electrification by Mr Grayling – has seen its station named as one of the worst in the country because of poor facilities and maintenance, as regularly highlighted by local MP Diana Johnson, while the soon-to-open Canary Wharf stop on Crossrail boasts platforms twice as long as Tube stations, 100,000 sq ft of leisure and retail space – and a roof garden that wouldn’t look out of place at Kew Gardens.
No wonder Britain is a tale of two countries when it comes to transport. When Mrs May was asked for a timetable for the Northern Powerhouse, the Prime Minister said she recognised “the importance of infrastructure across the whole of the country”.
Show it, Prime Minister, by answering these five questions – and ordering an annual audit by an independent watchdog to show whether the North-South divide is narrowing or not. If policy is on track, there’s nothing to fear by such scrutiny.
And there’s one final point: please can Mrs May explain why she is one of the few people who still thinks that Chris Grayling is still up to the job and not failing the North?