For about 30 seconds this morning, Chris Grayling appeared to have been made chair of the Conservative party. Perhaps thankfully for the UK’s oldest political party, this threat very quickly went away again: the Times’ Sam Coates tweeted that there had been “internal pushback” against the appointment.
I’ve no idea if that’s true, but if it were, I would be entirely unsurprised. Grayling is one of the most spectacularly gaffe-prone mediocrities ever to hold high office. He’s blundered through politics like Mr Bean in a toy shop, fiddling with things he doesn’t understand and knocking stuff over every time he turns his head.
Let’s remind ourselves of some of his greatest hits.
- In 2009, the Telegraph reported that Grayling had claimed more than £10,000 in expenses to renovate his central London flat, despite the fact his family home was just 17 miles away. This was not great, as he had spent much of recent history laying into Labour sleaze.
- Also that year, Grayling compared the Moss Side district of Manchester to the gang-ridden Baltimore of The Wire, claiming that the area had been so consumed by gun crime, it was “nothing short of an urban war”. The comment, about an area where nobody had been shot of late, was condemned by local police and politicians.
- In 2010, his claims that crime had “risen sharply” in the UK were rebuked by the chair of the UK Statistics Authority as “likely to mislead the public”. Look closely, and you might spot some themes emerging here.
- That March, Grayling defended the rights of bed & breakfasts to turn away gay couples for religious reasons, and was promptly buried under allegations of homophobia. In the man’s defence, he apologised for causing offence, said the same did not apply to larger hotels, and later voted in favour of gay marriage – but when the coalition took office Grayling, previously shadow home secretary, was not given a full cabinet post. It was not entirely clear this was a coincidence.
- Chin up, though, because he instead got to be employment minister, where he promptly suggested that the unemployed might find their longed for career by applying for a temporary Christmas job.
- And in 2012, he was promoted, becoming Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor – the first non-lawyer to have served in that latter post in somewhere upwards of four centuries.
- One of his cornerstone policies in the role was to introduce mandatory court-fees for convicted criminals: those for a guilty plea were strategically made substantially lower than those for a not-guilty plea. The move was widely condemned by the legal profession as a threat to fair trial, on the grounds that innocent people might plead guilty to avoid the charge.
- Grayling also attempted to ban books for prisoners, because of course the big problem with our prison system is that too much reading is happening inside it. The ban was declared unlawful.
- Oh, he was also criticised by the outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons for attempting to interfere with independent reports.
- All in all, Grayling’s tenure at Justice went so well that the human rights barrister Lord Pannick later described it as “notable only for his attempts to restrict judicial review and human rights, his failure to protect the judiciary against criticism from his colleagues; and the reduction of legal aid to a bare minimum”. So that’s just great.
- That said, he did manage to achieve something many had thought impossible, and make an entire profession genuinely pleased to see Michael Gove, who promptly set about cleaning up Grayling’s mess.
- During his brief tenure as Leader of the House, Grayling backed Brexit – and while it’s not clear he can claim much credit for Leave’s victory, having been on the winning side does seem to have given his career a new lease of life. In July 2016, he was appointed transport secretary.
- That December, he blocked plans for Transport for London to take over suburban train routes in south London – even though Boris Johnson had supported such a move while mayor. The decision earned Grayling criticism from a number of south London’s Tory MPs.
- Not long afterwards, a letter Grayling had written to Johnson in 2013 emerged. In it, he said he opposed running the trains as part of London’s transport system on the grounds that it would put more services “in the clutches of a Labour mayor”. The letter was attacked as a sign that Grayling placed narrow partisan advantage over sensible policymaking, for the very good reason that he very clearly had.
- In October 2016, he knocked a cyclist off their bike by opening the door of his ministerial car without looking. In what by now feels typical of Grayling’s luck and PR instincts, the whole thing was captured on film. There was some discussion over whether he may have committed an offence.
- This would perhaps have been less embarrassing – probably not, but perhaps – if he hadn’t recently given an interview in which he laid into London’s bike lanes, arguing that, “There are places where they perhaps cause too much of a problem for road users.” Cyclists, it seems, don’t count as road users.
- This Christmas, Grayling’s department announced it would be allowing the loss-making Virgin Trains East Coast franchise to get out of its contract early. Andrew Adonis attacked the “massive bailout” in his resignation letter, asking why Grayling had not allowed state-owned companies to run the route. “He deliberately avoided doing so for ideological reasons,” he concluded, “and he was not even upfront about not doing so.”
Why, one wonders, with this sort of record is Grayling not a more controversial figure? He’s widely loathed among lawyers, sure, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in transport with a good word to say about him. But in the world beyond he remains an unknown. It’s like he’s pulled some kind of Jedi mind trick: by looking basically identical to half a dozen other pasty bald tory men, he wanders through life with his screw-ups unnoticed.
At any rate: I’m quite disappointed that Grayling hasn’t been made chair of the Conservative party. If he’d brought the same magic touch to his party as he had to justice and transport, then Labour could have been in office by Thursday.