Britain is heading for the buffers
PUBLISHED: 10:00 06 September 2018 | UPDATED: 09:50 07 September 2018
It isn't rocket science. Governments smuggle out announcements on the last Friday of August, when parliament isn't sitting, for an obvious reason. They want to bury bad news - usually very big bad news specially saved up for this very day of supreme national inattention.
This year’s announcement on Friday August 31 was true to form. The biggest infrastructure project in the country – nay in Europe – is seriously delayed and over budget.
The scheme is Crossrail, London’s £15bn new east-west underground rail line extending out to Heathrow, Reading and Slough to the west of London and to Canary Wharf and into Essex in the east.
So prestigious is the line that it was recently renamed the Elizabeth Line, complete with a plaque unveiled by the Queen at Bond Street station.
This is a fitting tribute to this hugely important infrastructure, which will add 10% to the public transport capacity of London as well as creating new commuter cities out of Reading, Slough and Maidenhead.
Windsor itself, a branch off Crossrail, will become a magnet for new businesses and London commuters – and the line will be quickest way for Her Majesty to get from Windsor Castle to Buckingham Palace, via Paddington.
I have strong paternal feelings for Crossrail, having agreed much of the funding, and the difficult planning issues, as transport secretary a decade ago.
So vital is the project that I cast party advantage aside and wrote huge cheques to Boris Johnson in his first term as mayor of London, to keep the scheme on track with no political disturbance.
Today’s transport secretary is Chris Grayling and this is another Grayling catastrophe.
I won’t bore you with the gory details as to why the scheme is a year late (maybe longer) and £1bn over budget (maybe more). Suffice it to note that the chief executive of Crossrail, paid nearly £1m last year including performance bonus, was recently appointed by Grayling to a different job, while the chairman of Crossrail was appointed by Grayling to chair HS2 – an even bigger planned infrastructure project, linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds by high-speed rail, which – surprise, surprise – Grayling is also about to delay as the costs escalate.
I am the parent of HS2 too, and angry that my offspring are being so abused. Grayling is an unfit parent for any public policy whatever, including Brexit, of which he is ardent champion. If there was a political equivalent of taking children into care, I would be in the High Court at once, appealing to a robed Emma Thompson as in the new film The Children Act.
Underlying this meltdown is a Whitehall and Westminster whose eyes are now totally off the ball of governing Britain.
Policy area after policy area – health, education, transport, the lot – are being serially mismanaged because of a Brexit nervous breakdown across government and parliament.
The Department for Transport has more immediate crises to worry about than Crossrail and HS2.
Are planes going to fly next March? Are the ports going to be open? Will drivers’ licences and insurance policies be valid on the continent?
Hundreds of the department’s best and brightest are overwhelmed trying to find answers to these questions, and conducting negotiations across Whitehall and Brussels.
Everything else is delayed, deferred or cancelled.
Parliament is in an even worse state. When it is sitting it is debating Brexit – one bill after another, like painting the Forth Bridge.
But so great is the political crisis, Theresa May is keen for it to sit as little as possible.
So Parliament returned on Tuesday from 41 days in recess. After a few cursory Brexit debates it is being sent away next week for another three weeks. When it returns next month its business will be… you got it, Brexit. This time it will be for the really key Brexit votes on no-deal or a withdrawal agreement, if there is one.
If Brexit passes, won’t the cloud lift and Whitehall and Westminster return to normal? Alas not.
Brexit bills are going to extend for years to come – one trade treaty and regulatory reform after another, day after day, for years to come.
Oh, and there is that little issue of money. Crossrail, HS2 – and all the other infrastructure needed to follow them – cost billions. As the Brexit economy slows, the Treasury is cancelling projects galore. It has already got a long list of announcements for next August 31. But I firmly intend to be on holiday, exhausted from fighting Brexit!