Whoops – there go the railways, says Westminster’s answer to Mr Bean

Published by The Guardian (20th September, 2018)

Imagine you were running a business and one of your senior managers left a trail of disaster in their wake. First, you would investigate to see what had gone wrong in each case. And then, if you found the same person was responsible for repeated failures, you might either dismiss them or, if feeling generous, put them in charge of the paper clips. But as the hapless career of Chris Grayling proves, they do things differently in government.

Grayling is a nice guy. No doubt he means well. But when it comes to politics, he seems utterly clueless and shamelessly incompetent as he lurches from job to job, leaving others to clear up his chaos. It was no surprise to hear him on the radio this morning insisting he would not resign from his latest post as transport secretary despite a catastrophic cock-up. Never mind a timetabling fiasco that left so many passengers stranded amid cancellations and confusion, let alone a regulator’s report highlighting his failure to take charge even when the project was clearly in trouble. Chris clings on.

Grayling’s defence was that he fell for expert assurances that massive timetable changes were ready to roll out. Then he bleated that it was hard for politicians to overrule professionals – although you might have thought cabinet ministers were paid six-figure salaries to do precisely that when necessary to protect consumers and voters. Rather than resigning, he insisted he was just the person to fix systemic problems despite his reluctance to intervene. ‘My job, in my view, is to get this sorted,’ he said defiantly, threatening to unleash another rail shake-up.

Yet this tin-eared Tory minister is making such a mess of his current job it seems as if he is deliberately fuelling Labour arguments for rail nationalisation. Earlier this year he provoked a furore after bailing out Virgin and Stagecoach by letting them off the hook for huge financial pledges on the flagship east coast mainline. On the day of the biggest surge in rail fares for five years, he jetted to Qatar and so ducked difficult questions. Crossrail has been delayed, devastating firms preparing for its opening, while his own arguments for dropping key electrification schemes were shredded under scrutiny.

Yet there is nothing new to his bumbling ineptitude. Grayling undercut Tory attempts at modernisation shortly before the 2010 election by insisting bed and breakfast owners had the right to reject gay guests. As minister of state under his pal Iain Duncan Smith at work and pensions, he helped create a universal credit system riddled with flaws that are still slowly being ironed out. Appointed to the cabinet as justice secretary, his three-year reign was totally disastrous from banning books for prisoners through to the botched part-privatisation of probation, training of Saudi prison guards and the imposition of court charges hastily binned by his successor.

The incredible thing is that he has not only survived endless humiliation but thrived. His performance at justice was arguably the worst running of a department by any cabinet minister this century. Yet his reward was promotion to leader of the house, and he remains in a front-rank job despite his dismal record. Is it any wonder public faith in Westminster’s ability to sort out chronic problems has dwindled when there is such insouciance over repeated bungling by the same politician? Although, of course, we also have a Northern Ireland secretary who admitted she was unaware nationalists did not vote for unionist parties  and vice versa.

Partly his survival is down to Brexit. Grayling was a prominent leaver, and we have a weak prime minister desperately trying to balance discontent on both wings of her party as she tries to find a path out of Brussels. Indeed, it is impossible to ignore how many key Eurosceptics have such a terrible track record in office, from Duncan Smith – the worst Tory leader in recent history – through to Owen Paterson, such an embarrassment during his short spell at environment, and Priti Patel, dismissed from the simple job of doling out aid. But then even, Margaret Thatcher discovered how ideologues often crumbled when confronted with decision-making and reality.

Yet it is strange that Grayling remains on the front bench when there are many figures in the Tory ranks who could do a far better job. It is said all political careers end in failure, but this stumbling character seems to have turned mishaps into his trademark as if he is Westminster’s answer to Mr Bean. Whoops – there go the prisons, the probation service, the railways! But there is nothing funny about an accident-prone minister who keeps blaming others when found surrounded by mess. The sooner his cabinet career hits the buffers, the better for his party and wider politics.

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