Patrick McLoughlin has been a Conservative MP for a lot longer than he was a coal miner. His 27 years in Westminster dwarf the six that he spent at the Littleton Colliery in Staffordshire, but anyone who might think those working-class roots are forgotten is disabused of the notion on entering the Transport Secretary’s office in Pimlico, south London. Looking over the shoulder of the silver-haired, navy-suited gentleman who cheerfully greets me is an old campaign poster featuring the same smile on a younger face, beaming out from under the brim of a coal-worker’s hard hat.
The image dates from McLoughlin’s failed attempt in 1983 to overturn a huge Labour majority in Wolverhampton. Three years later he won a by-election in West Derbyshire. The personal journey from colliery to cabinet – combined with a quarter-century of commuting across the Midlands – imparts a distinct perspective to the Transport portfolio. McLoughlin’s determination to deliver the high-speed railway link known as HS2 stems in part from his urge to ensure that regions other than London get their share of investment.
“Nobody complains about the £16.5bn we are currently spending building Crossrail in London, or the £6.5bn that is doing Thameslink in London,” he tells me. “That is £23bn of expenditure in London.
“Now, London needs it, but actually the northern cities need their infrastructure, too. And over the years we’ve not done as much in the north as we have done in London and the south-east.”
To emphasise the point, McLoughlin stresses that HS2 has the support of Labour council leaders in northern cities. (The scheme was conceived under the last government.) But in austere times it is easy for opposition politicians to imagine other ways £50bn might be spent. While Ed Miliband backs HS2 in principle, Ed Balls is a known sceptic. “No blank cheques” is the shadow chancellor’s formula to express the conditionality of his support, an equivocation that infuriates the Transport Secretary.
“The idea that George Osborne would give you a blank cheque is for the fairies,” he says. “And the idea that now Ed Balls is going to become some virtuous guardian of public money – well, it’s about 15 years too f***ing late … excuse my French.” There is a pause to allow for the restoration of ministerial language. “But, of course, we have to look at the cost.”
His irritation is palpable. Big infrastructure projects need cross-party support and Labour seemed to be on board before Balls “started playing silly buggers”. One of the reasons why the costs have gone up, McLoughlin says, is to limit the environmental disruption that spurs objections to HS2 in picturesque Tory areas. Tunnelling beneath angry voters’ backyards is an expensive business.
Meanwhile, when it comes to winning over naysayers on the Conservative right, McLoughlin has another line of persuasion. “I just say to the Eurosceptics when I come across them, ‘I find it outrageous: I can get to Brussels on a high-speed train; I can go to Paris on a high-speed train; but I can’t go to Birmingham and I can’t go to Manchester and I can’t go to Leeds. So, we’re connected to Europe and I want the rest of the UK to be connected in such a good way.’ ”
I wonder if his emphasis on bringing some infrastructural bounty to the north reflects a recognition that the Tories have electoral problems there. There are regions where voting Conservative is culturally taboo, even among voters whose political instincts are firmly to the right of Labour. McLoughlin concedes that it is a challenge. “The Conservative Party has done well in the north in the past and we need to rekindle that. We need to show that we are a party for the whole country.”
He recalls the bafflement of his colliery peers when he contested his first council seat as a Tory. “I never hid it. It was a source of fascination. A lot of the people I worked with were a damn sight more right-wing than I was, but they just voted Labour. If you asked them questions on defence, on taxation, on immigration, on law and order, they were to the right of the Tory candidate – the ‘Tory bastard’, as they would call him. But they just voted Labour when the election came.”
I suspect it doesn’t help if the Conservative leadership, in its eagerness to paint Ed Miliband as the plaything of trade union bosses, sounds as if it is waging war against institutions that have historically represented working-class interests. McLoughlin doesn’t disagree.
“There is a difficulty for us,” he says. “There is undoubtedly a difficulty that when you attack some of the [union] leaders, you get landed with people thinking you’re attacking ordinary people, hard-working people who just pay their union subs because they want the union to support them if they get into a dispute … There is a big difference between the bosses and the members of the trade unions.”
So does he agree with those advocates of “blue-collar Conservatism” who want the party to adopt a different tone? For instance, Robert Halfon, the Tory MP for Harlow in Essex, has written that unions could be “soulmates” of the Conservatives and suggested offering discounted party membership to trade unionists.
“Yes, I buy exactly what Robert says on this. Robert represents a constituency that probably has quite a high union membership and he gets elected because they vote for him,” is McLoughlin’s forthright reply. “People like Robert and others have that special responsibility within the party to make sure that we get our language right.”
The bigger obstacle for the Tories when it comes to winning the votes of workers struggling to get by on low incomes is the rising cost of living and in that battle the Department for Transport is closer to the front line. Labour made the political weather in the autumn party conference season with a campaign to
force private energy companies to freeze prices, and soaring train fares rival ruinous gas bills as a source of public rage. It can’t be long before Miliband picks a fight with the privatised rail companies, hoping to cast the Conservatives on the side of unloved corporate interests.
“We will drive down on cost,” McLoughlin declares, but he won’t go down the path of profit-bashing. “One of the ways you drive down on cost is trying to get more efficiency in the rail industry, getting more people to use the railways. The truth is, if you look at the cost of rail tickets now, a huge amount of them are not sold as ‘turn up to the station and buy a ticket’. If you pre-book a ticket, you can get some really blinking good deals …
“The profit of the train operating companies is around 3 per cent. I don’t think anybody is really saying that that is outrageously over the top.”
Similar arguments haven’t neutralised the controversy around energy firms. Perhaps the public is somewhere else entirely. Many people, I suggest to him, see John Major’s privatisation of the railways as a disaster – opinion polls have shown majorities supporting renationalisation.
That, McLoughlin says, is because people have forgotten how dismal the old British Rail service was. “They can’t remember what it was like.” There is a particular kind of railway nostalgia in Britain that often overlooks practical realities and the challenge of running 21st-century services, he believes. “You’ll get thousands of people turning up to watch a steam train go past but you wouldn’t want that going past your washing line any longer.”
As for Labour, McLoughlin suspects the opposition won’t reverse privatisation, because it worked. “In the 13 years the Labour Party were in power, they stuck rigidly to franchising because they could see the advantages it brought … I was made a junior minister in 1989 and came to the Department of Transport. And at that time, British Rail was all about managing decline.
“If you actually look at the overall numbers of travellers during the time of British Rail, they were fairly constant. They managed demand, they put up ticket prices to keep people off the railways. Now, what’s happened since privatisation is we have seen a doubling of passenger numbers – a doubling!”
This railway evangelism marks a shift in tone from some of McLoughlin’s predecessors in the job. Philip Hammond, the first transport secretary in the coalition government, declared that his priority was ending the “war on motorists” – a phrase aimed at a different kind of Tory, the Top Gear-watching petrolhead who sees a speed camera as an abuse of his human rights and fetishes the car as the highest form of transport. McLoughlin disputes that interpretation, insisting the “war” in question was more about rising fuel duties and extortionate parking fines. But he also distances himself from the Jeremy Clarkson school of autophilia.
“I don’t completely buy Clarksonism, because I think one of the most important things is safety . . . If you look at the overall deaths on our roads, they’re coming down, but there are some very disturbing trends, particularly with cyclists. That’s partly because we’re seeing a vast explosion of cyclists in certain areas. You get some very stupid drivers and you get some very stupid cyclists as well. But the vast majority of them just want to get from their home to work safely.”
As a London cyclist, I witness a lot of crazy riding. Is there a case, I wonder, for stricter regulation, making it clearer that bike users have to obey the same rules of the road as everyone else? For the first time, McLoughlin’s affable patter dries up. His eyes shine with the wariness of a Westminster veteran standing on the edge of a political minefield and choosing not to stride in.
“That’s a very interesting area. I’d be very fascinated if the New Statesman launched a debate on the subject,” he says, laughing. “I’m sure we’d watch it with interest.”