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9 January 2019

How Chris Grayling became the Fat-out-of-Controller, presiding over transport fiasco after fiasco

Grayling’s pick for Operation Rescue will not be unloading chicken tikka masalas at Ramsgate any time soon – Seaborne has no boats.  

By Andrew Murray

Dunkirk could have been so different with Chris Grayling in charge. Instead of the flotilla of small boats sent to bring the army back home, the troops on the beaches would have received a margherita pizza with a bottle of pop on the side.

Hiring Seaborne as a plucky “British start-up” to provide emergency ferry services in the event of a no-deal Brexit must have seemed a good idea, on paper at least, to the man who is still, almost unbelievably, Transport Secretary.

But not such a good idea on the internet, where Seaborne’s terms and conditions of business appeared to have been cut-and-pasted from a fast-food delivery outfit.  However, there are no grounds to worry on this account. Grayling’s pick for Operation Rescue will not be unloading chicken tikka masalas at Ramsgate any time soon for one supervening reason – Seaborne has no boats. If its corporate branding were to conform to its capacities it would be renamed Beached, or perhaps Holed-Below-the-Waterline.

The Department for Transport did, we are assured by Grayling, conduct “due diligence” before assigning this key no-deal ferry contract to a landlocked firm with barely thirty-five grand in assets and which admits it faces significant operational difficulties to get its service up and running.

Nevertheless, such diligence must have been done in the spirit of the Beatles’ “Drive My Car”, where the protagonist has “no car and it’s breaking my heart/but I’ve found a driver and that’s a start”. Beep beep yeah.

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And they must have missed that a shipping company run by one of Seaborne’s directors, Ben Sharp, had collapsed owing the taxman a sizeable sum. Sharp, who is also already Seaborne’s second chief executive, apparently runs a further company described by investment expert Rob Murray Brown as “technically insolvent”. A former Royal Navy submariner, Sharp may have surfaced too soon for his own good.

Presumably, however, Seaborne had Grayling in mind when its posted conditions warned that the company would seek compensation if it suffered losses “incurred as the result of hoax delivery requests”.

The Secretary of State is stuck for an explanation for this farrago, because he has only one excuse for every cock-up he has commanded, and there have been a few:  blame it on the unions. As villains go, unions are distinctly retro, more usable in the years when Britain was joining the Common Market not trying to leave it. But Grayling was at it on the auld acquaintance front as the new year broke, telling commuters that the latest hike in their season tickets was because of pay rises for unionised employees.

Not the dividends paid to the private operators responsible for the ramshackle railway. Nor the fat-cat salaries drawn by the top managers running the same. Nor yet the senior civil servants in Grayling’s own department, who are among the best-remunerated in the service.

No, no one is to blame for the escalating price to be paid for a system deteriorating by every measure, except the station staff, drivers, guards, signallers and maintenance crews trying desperately to make it work.

In point of fact, just 25 per cent of industry expenditure goes on staff, and that includes giving the fat cats their cream. So Grayling, in his role as the Fat-Out-of-Controller who has presided over the great timetable fiasco, the great East Coast franchise failure (the latest in a series), the great punctuality collapse, the great electrification cancellation and more, misses his mark there.

No one likes strikes, and there might be fewer if Grayling’s department did not indemnify the losses of intransigent employers. He is less honest broker than bosses’ banker on industrial relations.

But even he cannot try to trot out the tired anti-union trope for Seaborne. It would be a pleasant surprise by now to learn that it has employees at all, let alone unionised ones. Even a robot would be mildly reassuring, but there is small sign of intelligence there, artificial or otherwise.

The Seaborne saga, an undistinguished episode in our maritime history, would seem extraordinary were it the work of any minister other than Grayling whose tenure in office has long appeared to serve no purpose other than encouraging the dullest backbencher to believe that chauffeured cars and red boxes remain within reach of all, regardless of talent or performance.

If the Prime Minister is really straining every sinew to convince her recalcitrant backbenchers that the only alternative to her unpopular Brexit plan is complete chaos and crisis, then Grayling’s continuing leadership of the Department for Transport is surely Exhibit A. And while no deal is one thing, no boats seem like an omission too far.

Nor can Grayling really be reinvented as Rear Admiral for the buccaneering, free-trade future of the Tory right’s post-Brexit fantasies. That would require the very things the Transport Secretary has mislaid lately, including ships and timetables.

No, Chris Grayling’s grip on his portfolio into 2019, using the phrase in a strictly symbolic sense, can only be down to May’s need to scare her troops into line – and to keep a piñata hanging for everyone else to take a whack at, so at least they are not walloping anyone else. Her cabinet is, let’s face it, a target-rich environment.

And who could she choose as new transport secretary anyway?  A replacement bus service would be the best answer (hat tip: Andrew Adonis), but going by form the department would give the contract to a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker, but definitely not anyone who owns any buses.

As for Grayling, he has announced he wants to “draw a line” under last year’s transport meltdowns. I fear there will be leaves on it.

Andrew Murray is chief of staff at Unite and an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn

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This article appears in the 09 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown