Big political mysteries of our time: why isn't Chris Grayling more unpopular?

Somehow the Transport Secretary has gone largely unscathed.

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One of the less discussed questions in British politics in the year of our trash fire, 2017, I feel, is why Chris Grayling isn’t more of a hate figure.

The tweeting classes, after all, love nothing more than a bogeyman to lay into, and the left is no less prone to such hatreds than the right. Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne have all taken their fair share of abuse. The last generation of Lib Dem leaders are still, to the bafflement of most party activists, less popular on the left than many actual Tories, and entire careers (mine) have been built on the basis of criticism of a single, largely irrelevant Tory MEP.

Of Grayling, though, there has been not a peep. Somehow, in a public sphere and media culture that thrives on personal attacks aimed at the other side, the Transport Secretary has gone largely unscathed.

Which is odd, because he is – let’s not put too fine a point on this – dreadful. I don’t mean personally: for all I know, he’s entirely charming. But in terms of his actions, he is ideological, hyper-partisan and, least forgivably, incompetent.

Take his recent record at the Department for Transport (DfT). Just this week, Grayling penned an op-ed for the Yorkshire Post, arguing (I paraphrase) that the north should stop whining about poor transport and sort itself out:

The message I want to send them is simply this: although one of my biggest priorities as Secretary of State is to build the transport links the North needs to thrive, they must be designed and managed by the North itself. It is central government’s responsibility to provide funding and a delivery structure that ensures efficiency, value for money and accountability. But beyond this, I want the North to take control.

It’s a noble enough sentiment, in its way, but it has two gaping flaws.

One is that central government is not providing the funding for those new transport links. Analysis by IPPR North published last February found that London was scheduled to get £1,940  of transport funding per head in the coming years – nearly three times as much as the North West (£680), and closer to ten times as much as the North East (£220) or Yorkshire (just £190). If DfT’s job is to provide the money, then Grayling’s DfT is not doing its job.

And Grayling himself, bless him, has made this worse, not better. Last month he scrapped the government’s long-promised plans to electrify railway lines in the north, Wales and the Midlands. Just days later, with all the political deftness for which Grayling has failed to become famous, he announced his support for London’s £30bn Crossrail 2 which, coincidentally, would serve a lot of Tory seats including his own constituency. It’s the kind of Machiavellian scheme Homer Simpson would come up with.

There’s a second problem with Grayling’s “take back control” shtick: to whit, he has in the past made it abundantly clear he doesn’t want Britain’s cities to do any such thing.

Sadiq Khan, after all, wanted London to take back control of some of its dodgier rail services, by folding the Southeastern commuter lines into TFL’s growing rail network. The move had the support of leading Tories including Boris Johnson and the previous transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin.

Last December, however, Grayling blocked the idea. A letter leaked to the Evening Standard suggested that his motivation had nothing to do with transport, and everything to do with party: he just didn’t want to increase the powers of a Labour mayor, an attitude which led Tory MP Bob Neill to describe Grayling as “not fit to hold office”. At any rate, given Labour’s dominance of the cities of the north, it’s hard to envision the transport secretary allowing the north to decide so much as what to have for breakfast of a morning.

None of this is new, and Grayling has form for all of it. Throughout his long career, he’s showcased a unique combination of naked partisanship and utter klutziness. In 2009, he compared Moss Side to The Wire, which went down about as well as you’d expect.

In the following year’s election campaign, Grayling, then shadow home secretary, was taped suggesting that bed & breakfast owners should have the right to turn gay couples away from their establishments. (Reassuringly, he said he felt differently about bigger hotels.) Such a policy would have contravened the 2007 Equality Act, and the resulting furore was no doubt one reason why, when the coalition entered government, Grayling found himself denied a cabinet job.

When he finally did make it to the top table, as justice secretary between 2012 and 2015, his main achievement was to help rehabilitate the reputation of his successor: Michael Gove took the role after him and promptly became unexpectedly popular with the legal profession by unpicking almost everything Grayling had done. If my successor were to win plaudits for systematically erasing my work, I think it might shake my confidence somewhat. But Grayling ploughs on, apparently unperturbed.

So why, given this record, is Grayling still here? And how has he avoided becoming a meme? Is there some kind of Jedi mind trick in play?

The more charitable explanation is that – at least since being dumped as a potential home secretary – Grayling has held a succession of briefs that nobody cares much about. Justice is complicated and technical; transport is largely local and largely ignored, and not the sort of job that makes ministerial reputations. Perhaps Grayling has sailed on unscathed, simply because neither lobby reporters nor the public at large care much about what he’s been up to.

The less charitable explanation is that nobody can ever quite remember which droning bald white man he actually is.

Jonn Elledge is assistant editor of the New Statesman, in charge of day to day running of the website and its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.