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4 June 2018updated 05 Jun 2018 10:04am

Chris Grayling’s response to the rail fiasco could decide the next election

The pain caused by Northern and Thameslink’s cancellations is being most acutely felt in marginal seats both Labour and the Conservatives need for a majority.

By Patrick Maguire

Chris Grayling has – belatedly – apologised to commuters and announced an inquiry after weeks of chaos on the rail network, sparked by the introduction of new timetables by Northern and Thameslink.

Labour has renewed calls for the Transport Secretary to resign. No surprises there. More striking, however, have been the attacks from Conservative MPs from true blue constituencies in the Home Counties. Michael Fallon, whose Sevenoaks seat is archetypal commuter country, savaged Grayling from the backbenches today and ordered his former cabinet colleague to “get a grip”.

Less dramatic but just as significant is the presence of three Tory MPs – Bim Afolami, Nicholas Soames and Tim Loughton – as signatories on a Labour-led letter demanding answers from Grayling over Thameslink.

That Loughton has signed is a mark of the gravity of the consequences the Conservatives could yet face. His majority in Worthing East and Shoreham is just over 5,000. Against a backdrop of chaos on the rail network and Londoners leaving the capital for similar south coast constituencies, it is eminently winnable territory for Labour at the next election.

The prognosis is even gloomier for the Tories in the north. The near implosion of Northern’s services has caused severe disruption for thousands for travellers in dozens of marginal seats – from Southport, the only Conservative-held seat in Merseyside, to Westmorland and Lonsdale, where Tim Farron is defending a majority of just 777.

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That Andy Burnham is more or less the only political heavyweight banging the drum for Northern commuters on the airwaves should also worry the Tories. As my colleague Stephen Bush wrote after the Greater Manchester mayoral election last year, Burnham has a formidable bipartisan appeal and won the Tory-held marginals of Bolton West and Bury North (the latter since taken by Labour).

If anyone is going to hasten the conversion of swing voters in places like Bolton, Bury and Warrington to Labour over the rail fiasco, it is Burnham. Sensible Conservatives in the north west privately acknowledge this. Both parties would do well to remember that their paths to a majority in 2022 – or earlier – run through the seats where commuters’ pain has been felt most acutely, particularly in the North.

Grayling insists that only the rail industry can resolve the chaos but will ultimately be seen as responsible, and is being cast as such by both Labour and Tory MPs. What he does next could decide whether his party survives in government beyond the next election.

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