A symbol of corrosive failure

Published by The i paper (11th February, 2019)

Flying home on Saturday night from Denmark after reporting on another European nation demeaned by nativism, I flicked through a magazine from last summer. Inside was a glorious obituary of Lord Carrington, who could have been a caricature of an upper-crust politician but for two things. Read more: Theresa May faces calls to sack Transport Secretary over  no-deal Brexit ferry contract First, his lack of snobbery, fostered during wartime military service that led to a Military Cross. And second for that celebrated resignation as foreign secretary three days after the Falklands crisis exploded during Margaret Thatcher’s first term.

Carrington excelled as foreign secretary, a tough task under Thatcher, since he was charming, emollient and pragmatic. It was not his fault the intelligence was flawed, nor was it a mistake to attempt diplomacy, even a leaseback plan, to solve tensions with Buenos Aires. After the conflict he was exonerated by an inquiry into its causes. But he was a man of honour. He decided it was right to quit over the “humiliating affront” of Argentina’s capture of British territory, despite personal sadness at leaving a job he loved.

Now contrast this character with one of his modern Tory successors as a cabinet minister: the pitiful Chris Grayling, a former television producer who clings to his job regardless of the political carnage and passenger chaos he leaves in his wake. This ludicrous figure’s latest disaster is the ferry fiasco: his decision to deliver a £13.8m contract to ensure goods flow to our island nation in the event of no deal Brexit to a firm that possessed no ferries. If he had an ounce of Carrington’s dignity, this farce alone would see him fall on his sword.

Consider the facts. A critical state contract was given to a company that not only had no boats but had never run a ferry service. There was no proper tendering process, so the Transport Secretary dressed up his move – which might have broken the law – as support for a British start-up. His department claimed ‘a wide range of operatives’ had been invited to tender, yet there was only one bid. Grayling insisted his team had ‘looked very carefully’ at the business – but failed to notice it seemed to have copied terms and conditions from a pizza delivery service on its website.

Bob Kerslake, former head of the Civil Service, said this saga would ‘confirm the view of many that this country is in a mess’. He is right. Once again, we see how Brexit has sent this country hurtling along on currents of despair and waves of deceit towards a foggy destination. The captain insists on steering straight ahead, ignoring choppy waters and looming icebergs. The crew at Westminster see the dangers but focus on re-arranging deck chairs and refuse to mutiny. Not only do we lack ferries but it feels like some lifeboats are being jettisoned.

Many of the problems we face as a country that led to Brexit boil down to persistent political failure, which left too many communities fearful over the future and voters lacking faith in their leaders. No-one symbolises such corrosive failure better than the bumbling buffoon behind this fiasco. He is, of course, an ardent Brexiteer; indeed, he was probably attempting to spare his own blushes after handing bigger deals to French and Danish shipping operators, underlining our reliance on Europe.

His track record is awful yet he clings to his seat at the Cabinet table. Already in this job he oversaw a revamp of rail timetables that caused passenger chaos, ducking responsibility but then slated by a parliamentary probe. He delayed laws to control drones shortly before they led to air travel disarray.  He has failed to get firm grip on costly infrastructure projects such as HS2 and Crossrail. His cynical opposition to rail devolution, putting party politics before commuters, led even one Tory MP to demand his resignation. And he boosted Labour’s push for rail nationalisation by letting Virgin and Stagecoach off from financial pledges on the flagship east-coast line.

Before that he managed to wreck David Cameron’s efforts on Tory modernisation by supporting bed and breakfast owners seeking to stop gay guests shortly before the 2010 election. As welfare minister he helped created the universal credit system that is riddled with flaws. As justice secretary his three-year term was so dire that his successor Michael Gove spent much of his time binning silly concepts such as banning books for prisoners and imposing court charges, while his part-privatisation of probation was damned as a dismal mess by MPs.

Yet he bounced on to become Leader of the House before being put in charge of our transport systems. Grayling may be a nice guy, and prime ministers must balance cabinets especially in such divided times, but how is this disaster-prone man on his third cabinet job? The credibility of Brexiteers has been shredded yet there must be someone from his nativist wing who could sort a rail timetable or avoid giving ferry deals to landlubbers? If Theresa May thinks he is the best person for cabinet then she must take a very dim view of all her junior ministers and backbenchers.

The tragedy of Grayling is that he typifies a political class that all too often shows contempt for fellow citizens. These are the people that push on with Brexit despite knowing it will damage the country. These are the people that back party leaders despite knowing they are not up to the job. These are the people that play puerile tribal games instead of trying to find solutions to serious problems. These are the people that fritter away funds on vanity projects abroad while failing to fix critical problems at home in hospitals, housing and social care.

Perhaps there is a point to Chris Grayling after all: he is the court jester in a parliament of fools.

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