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4 June 2018

The best argument for keeping Chris Grayling as transport secretary is to ensure no one else gets the blame

The invisible man strikes again.

By Jonn Elledge

I sometimes worry that Chris Grayling doesn’t exist – that he’s some kind of not-very-widely shared delusion. That a man who managed to offend the gay community, the UK Statistics Authority and the entire population of Manchester before even joining the government should survive for eight years as a minister has always seemed terribly unlikely to me.

And surely if film really existed of an incumbent transport secretary knocking a cyclist off their bike – and then berating them for it – he would, at the very least, have attained a certain level of infamy. Ask most people outside the bubble what they think of Grayling, though, and you’re likely to be met with a baffled look and the word, “…Who?” This isn’t a real minister: he’s a recurring joke from The Thick of It.

It is possible that Grayling is about to learn, to his cost, that his luck has been but a function of his anonymity – for in the last few weeks, his profile has risen in the worst possible way. The new rail timetable, and the expansion of the Thameslink network that accompanied it, has triggered mass cancellation of train services to both north and south of London, and footage of furious commuters to accompany them.

Those problems are as nothing, however, compared to the chaos currently unfolding in the north of England. With more than a third of Northern Rail services being cancelled each day, the company has at last brought in an emergency timetable. This won’t fix the problem: it just means that it’s given up even pretending it’s planning to run all those train services. (Incidentally, while the London media has largely ignored the problems on the Northern Rail network, it’s positively fallen over itself to cover those on the Southern Railway. Sometimes I also worry that I’m living in a parody that’s just a bit too on the nose.)

At any rate, none of this looks good for Grayling. Labour politicians have been laying into him for weeks, and Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, has several times now demanded his head. Worse, in many ways, is that backbench Tories have begun to join the fray. Grant Shapps has been tweeting. Sir Michael Fallon has been on the BBC, promising to leave Grayling in “absolutely no doubt as to the real, raw anger of my constituents”. All that, plus the Prime Minister has said she has complete faith in her minister, and we all know what that means.

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Is Grayling’s job really in danger? I hesitate to make predictions, partly because he’s survived so many crises in the past, partly because I’m really appallingly bad at them.

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But it is worth noting that the chaos on the rail network – unlike the mess he created at Justice, or the time that poor cyclist got knocked off their bike – is not really Grayling’s fault. Many factors have contributed to the chaos: a new, untested timetable; late-running electrification projects; a lack of adequate driver training; poor relationships between train operating companies and their staff. The transport secretary might have done more to fix some of these problems – but others were always likely to be out of his hands.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s safe: the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility is a stern mistress, and the type of voters who rely on the trains are the type of voters a Tory government is likely to listen to.

But it does mean that sacking Grayling probably won’t be enough to make this mess go away. His best defence now is that, by keeping him in post, the prime minister ensures that no other minister gets contaminated by it.

Chris Grayling once survived scandal after scandal because nobody knew who he was. Now, perhaps, he’ll survive because – whatever his other failings – he makes a perfectly good human shield. That’s progress of a sort, I suppose.