Long line of mishaps for ‘Failing Grayling’
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has presided over a long line of mishaps during his six-and-a-half years in the Cabinet.
Dubbed Failing Grayling for the numerous controversies to have played out during his time in office, the 56-year-old – born on April Fool’s Day – has been a gift to parliamentary sketch writers.
Forced to repeatedly deflect calls to resign, he has ploughed on through several serious headaches since taking the helm of the Department for Transport (DfT) in July 2016 – and has been blighted by decisions he made in previous posts.
Mr Grayling’s decision to award Seaborne Freight a contract worth £13.8 million to run services between Ramsgate and Ostend – despite having no ships – attracted widespread criticism.
The DfT’s decision was challenged by Eurotunnel, and on Friday the Government announced it had reached an agreement worth up to £33 million with the Channel Tunnel firm.
But it was only the latest in a long line of mishaps.
His major reforms of probation services in 2013, when he was justice secretary, were found to have led to “skyrocketing” numbers of released offenders returning to prison for breaching their licence conditions after serving short sentences.
Sir Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office (NAO), said the ministry “set itself up to fail” in how it approached the reforms.
Mr Grayling faced a vote of no confidence – but survived – over Northern Rail’s chaotic timetable collapse in June.
He had rejected calls for Northern to be renationalised, although he accepted the situation experienced by passengers was “unacceptable”.
In a later appearance before the Commons Transport Select Committee, he raised eyebrows by insisting: “I don’t run the railways,” and instead blamed Network Rail.
He also came under fire for taking a trip to Qatar when the biggest rail fare rises for five years were announced in January 2018.
Labour said his travel abroad “smacked of a man running scared”, but Mr Grayling insisted he had not “shirked the issue” – although he admitted fares were “higher than I would wish”.
He was forced to bring the East Coast Main Line back under public control last May after an agreement with Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) ended five years early.
Mr Grayling said the parent companies of VTEC – Stagecoach and Virgin – had “got their bid wrong” in terms of revenue from the franchise, which was originally due to run until 2023.
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said Mr Grayling had “gifted” Stagecoach and Virgin, which took over in 2015, a “£2 billion bailout” after they failed on the major route.
He also faced issues with Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern (TSGN), and a report by the Government spending watchdog last year found value for money was not being achieved by the UK’s largest rail franchise.
Passengers suffered the worst disruption on the network since services began in September 2014, the NAO reported.
A long-running dispute over driver-only trains between Southern and unions saw passengers in the South East endure years of misery with repeated strikes and disrupted services.
The NAO found that, while industrial action was a “major contributor” to delays and cancellations, the DfT made decisions that “negatively impacted on passengers”.
Away from the railways, opponents of the Government’s backing of a third runway at Heathrow have been critical of the DfT’s handling of the long-running process that resulted in the west London airport being picked over other contenders.
A group of councils, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Greenpeace have launched a legal challenge against the decision.
They have formally notified Mr Grayling of their intention to seek a judicial review.
But Mr Grayling’s misfortune began before he stepped inside the DfT, as several decisions he made as justice secretary from September 2012 to May 2015 had to be overturned.
He introduced new fees for employment tribunals, banned people from sending books to prisoners, and brought forward court fees which the then chairman of the Bar Council warned could incentivise innocent people to plead guilty.
All of the moves were subsequently overturned.
Other failures included Mr Grayling’s decision to bring forward legal aid restrictions for domestic violence victims, cut legal aid for prisoners and set up a body which won a £6 million contract to train prison staff in Saudi Arabia.
The Cambridge history graduate previously served as Commons leader between May 2015 and July 2016, as a work and pensions minister under David Cameron, and has held several frontbench posts including shadow home secretary and shadow transport secretary.