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17 November 2017

Boris makes headlines – but these overlooked ministers truly endanger the Tories

The haplessness of Chris Grayling, a member of the cabinet since 2012, goes largely unnoticed.

By Stephen Bush

According to Soccernomics – Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s book on the use of data in football – talent scouts are more likely to recommend blond players than anyone else. Not because they’re better, but simply because they stand out on the pitch and linger in the memory as a result.

Does ministerial incompetence follow a similar pattern? The many howlers of Boris Johnson stand out because of his outsized media profile and distinctive blond mop. The haplessness of Chris Grayling, a member of the cabinet since 2012, goes largely unnoticed and unreported, perhaps because he has hardly any public profile and even less hair. Instead, he has cultivated a kind of inconspicuous incompetence. The year he left the Ministry of Justice in 2015, all youth offenders’ centres but one were found to be unsafe. He was shuffled to Leader of the Commons, traditionally regarded as the antechamber between full cabinet rank and the wilderness, then rescued from the scrapheap by Theresa May, who promoted him to Transport Secretary.

Transport policy moves at a glacial place and it may be many years before the repercussions of Grayling’s tenure are properly felt. One civil servant describes him as a “placebo-effect minister”: a secretary of state who has little effect on the inner workings of his department and meagre ability to defend his patch from the fiscal constraints imposed by the Treasury. As a cabinet minister, Grayling has been unable to advance his successive departments’ interests in Whitehall or in cabinet.

He was an early supporter of May, whose leadership campaign he ran, as well as one of the six Cameron-era cabinet ministers to back a Leave vote. This means that he is safe in the cabinet for the foreseeable future. It is his predecessor at transport, the party chairman Patrick McLoughlin, whose job is most at risk. McLoughlin has achieved something that has eluded every Conservative politician since the Brexit vote: he has united most of his party’s MPs. Unfortunately, he has united them in a belief he should be sacked.

Tory backbenchers blame him for the disastrous general election and for the calamitous party conference that followed. At a bad-tempered reception for failed candidates and defeated Conservative MPs, one of their number asked McLoughlin: “I’ve lost my job. Why should you keep yours?”

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However, when you ask Conservative MPs to lay out the precise charges against McLoughlin, the list is thin. The case for sacking him is that he is nearly 60 and values loyalty highly, which means that he is unlikely to become a difficult backbencher in the way sacked ministers often do.

That said, McLoughlin did cost the Conservatives seats in 2017: it’s just the damage was done while he was at Transport, and it was a result of his success there. During McLoughlin’s tenure from 2012-2016, transport spending was used to ease the pain of austerity and keep voters in the Conservative fold. The result was a significant improvement in the condition of England’s rail and road networks: provided that you lived in the Tory-voting south.

McLoughlin’s unnoticed success in improving commuter routes into London collided headfirst with a record of failure at the Department for Communities and Local Government. A series of housing ministers came and went in the Cameron era, all with the same private diagnosis of the problem: our restrictive planning laws are a conspiracy of the homeowning classes against the rest. Each, in turn, was frustrated by the need, real or perceived, to keep older Tory voters on side. The result? The number of homeowners aged under 45 has dropped by 904,000 since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. That brings with it a decline in the number of people who are inclined to vote Conservative. In 2017, the Tories led Labour by 22 points among homeowners, but trailed by 17 points among renters.

To make matters worse, the section of the homeowning population that tends to vote Labour despite its economic interests – relatively affluent social liberals – is being priced out of its traditional enclaves in England’s great cities. Expensive housing plus solid commuter rail and road links mean these voters are spreading across the south of England. The most eye-catching consequence is the slew of Labour gains in places such as Reading East and Brighton Kemptown on 8 June. A less reported trend is the drip-drip of historic gains by the opposition in council by-elections since then. This suggests that the Tory losses of 2017 were part of a trend: more liberal, culturally-inclined Labour voters are leaving the inner cities and taking their voting habits with them.

Conservative MPs from marginal seats are all too aware of the depth of the housing crisis, in part because even an MP’s salary is not sufficient to get on the housing ladder in parts of the South. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, the latest minister to grapple with the housing crisis, is making the right noises about the problem, and Chancellor Philip Hammond is under pressure to address it in his Budget.

But more – and therefore cheaper – houses in southern England are only part of the answer. Improving transport links within the north and Midlands must be prioritised, too. If young graduates can commute easily to work near their families, they won’t have to move in such large numbers to the capital. To change that would require more than a placebo-effect minister. So far, Grayling has not even managed to accomplish the electrification of key rail lines in the north, or increase connections in Wales.

The political repercussions of McLoughlin were bad enough for the Tories. But the political consequences of Grayling may be more long-lasting. 

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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit