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29 January 2020

The government is nationalising Northern Rail. So now it has no one to blame

A Prime Minister who, more than any in recent history, values popularity may soon find himself as loathed as his predecessors.

By Jonn Elledge

So, it’s finally happening: Northern Rail, the struggling train operating company offering services in the, well, you can probably guess that part, is being nationalised.

The franchise will be stripped from its current operator Arriva on 1 March, five years early and after nearly two years of disruption that have followed the May 2018 timetable changes. Its routes will be operated instead by an arms-length company owned by the British government. Explaining the decision, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “People across the north deserve better, their communities deserve better and I am determined to achieve that.”

Here’s the thing, though. This may not help. Indeed, from the perspective of the government, if not the passengers, it may in fact make things worse. (Oh, and while we’re at it – the other failing northern rail company, Transpennine Express, remains very much in control of its destiny.)

Arriva blamed the ongoing crisis on “external factors” such as deficiencies in the region’s rail infrastructure. Obviously the German firm has an interest in pushing that line, but it also happens to be true. Various investments that were required to make the new timetable possible – notably two new platforms at Manchester Piccadilly – have been repeatedly kicked down the road by, er, the British government. (If you want more detail on that, I explained it on CityMetric earlier this month.)

A government-owned operating company may help at the margins, by seeing its job as to offer services rather than generate revenues. But it can’t magically fix the bottleneck that lies at the root of so many of the network’s problems – and so, to some extent, the delays and cancellations will likely continue. Perhaps Shapps will pop up on the telly in a few months to gleefully announce he’s single-handedly disproved Labour’s thesis that nationalisation will solve everything. Or perhaps he’s just guaranteed that, when those problems persist, he’s the poor mug who’ll get the blame.

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This, indeed, may soon become something of a theme of this government. It’s made assorted promises around what Brexit will mean – greater freedom for the UK’s trade policy, a reduction in immigration figures, a trade deal with Brussels before the year is out, and no downside at all for living standards. But it is extremely unlikely, to put it mildly, to be able to deliver all of these things. Greater freedom in trade policy means a looser relationship with the single market; that will make life harder for businesses, which will hit the economy. Ministers have made no attempt to explain the trade-offs Britain faces – and now, with both opposition and Remain supporters routed, it has nobody to blame when it all goes wrong.

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In the same way – the government has promised to fix Britain’s crumbling public services, make housing more affordable without affecting house prices, and rebalance the economy away from London and the south east. Doing these things will be both expensive and hard. And who else is there left to blame when it doesn’t come off?

This won’t necessarily cost the Tories the next general election, of course: Labour has a mountain to climb. But it does mean that being prime minister of a majority government may not be quite the jolly jape that Boris Johnson always assumed it was. Sooner or later things are going to start going wrong. And a Prime Minister who, more than any in recent history, values popularity may soon find himself as loathed as his predecessors.

Good day for…

Remainers. This may come as a surprise after what I wrote above, but in his latest politics column that man Stephen Bush argues that, like those who marched against the Iraq War in 2003 before them, the Remain movement created by the loss of the referendum could affect British politics for decades. It’s worth a read.

Bad day for…

Palestinians. Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan has proposed a route map to a Palestinian state – but also suggested handing large chunks of territory occupied by settlers in the West Bank to Israel. Palestinian leaders were conspicuously absent from the launch, having pre-emptively rejected the proposal. More from the Guardian here.

Quote of the day

“We are not saying goodbye but merely au revoir today.”

Richard Corbett MEP, leader of the Labour delegation to the European parliament, speaking on the day the European parliament voted on the Brexit deal. His words were echoed by Belgium’s Guy Verhofstadt: “This vote is not an adieu. This vote is only, in my opinion, an au revoir.”

Everybody’s talking about…

Cuts at the BBC. (“Everybody” in this case can perhaps be read as “all the journalists I follow on Twitter”). Auntie is scrapping 450 newsroom jobs, and planning to cover fewer stories, in an attempt to save £80m. More details here.

Everybody should be talking about…

Why young women are addressing their problems by visiting psychics. No, really. Sarah explains it all.


Questions? Comments? Drop me an email.

And now, a word from our events team:

The New Statesman’s Northern Powerhouse Conference returns on the 27th February 2020, with a day of insight on the future of the North. Join leading political and business proponents of the Northern Powerhouse strategy, to explore the key themes of: green growth; investment in northern business, infrastructure, and transport; sport; media; and the rebalancing of the economy in the North. Speakers include Jake Berry, Steve Rotheram, Sir Richard Leese, Dan Jarvis and Chi Onwurah. Tickets are available here .

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