Elections bring change. Whoever wins, there are new policies, new priorities and new faces around the Cabinet table. For good or ill, as we discovered last week, there can be a new mood too.
But some things always stay the same. When we profiled Patrick McLoughlin after the 2015 general election, we called him ‘the new-old Transport Secretary’ because he had retained his job from one Parliament to the next. And now his successor, Chris Grayling, has pulled off the same feat. He was Transport Secretary before last Thursday’s vote. Despite reshuffling other parts of her Cabinet, Theresa May has confirmed that he is still Transport Secretary now.
So, what can we expect from Continuity Chris? His eleven months in the role have already given us a sense of what he’s about. He has made road safety one of his major causes, including by introducing new penalties for mobile phone use whilst driving. He’s also been one of the primary advocates of a third runway at Heathrow, leading to its adoption as official Government policy.
But for a full account of Grayling’s politics, you need to go back much further than eleven months – to the year of 2001. That’s when he was first elected to Parliament for the safe Tory seat of Epsom and Ewell, after a decade-long career in television and a spell in consultancy.
He spent his first 18 months in Parliament on the Transport Select Committee, from where he caught the Conservative leadership’s eye enough to be appointed as a junior Whip in 2002. From there, he steadily rose up the party’s ranks, entering the Shadow Cabinet three years later.
When David Cameron took over as Conservative leader in 2005, he made use of Grayling’s experience of transport policy by appointing him Shadow Transport Secretary. This pitted him first against Labour’s Alistair Darling – who would, of course, go on to become Chancellor – and then Douglas Alexander.
But soon Grayling was moved onwards and upwards; first to shadow the Work and Pensions Secretary, and then the Home Secretary. By the time the 2010 General Election came around, Grayling might have reasonably expected to become Home Secretary himself, in a Cameron administration – but it wasn’t to be. He was passed over in favour of Theresa May, denied not only a Great Office of State, but a role in the Cabinet entirely, serving instead as a junior minister for employment.
This was the first major oscillation of Grayling’s time under Cameron. First he was up, then he was down, and then he was up again: in 2012 he reached the Cabinet table after all, succeeding Ken Clarke as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor.
The country’s first non-lawyer Lord Chancellor, Grayling embarked on an ambitious programme of reforms, covering everything from rehabilitation to human rights. As reforms tend to, these sparked controversy and provoked a lot of criticism from the legal profession. He weathered this for almost three years before Cameron introduced yet another oscillation. Grayling was demoted to Leader of the House of Commons in May 2015.
There were some who expected Grayling to be pushed even further down. With an acerbic article in the Daily Telegraph, he became one of the first of six Cabinet ministers to break ranks with his Government over the European Union. It was assumed that this would provoke Cameron into sacking Grayling after Remain won the referendum.
However, British voters had other ideas. They, of course, voted for us to leave, meaning that it was Cameron who had to go, whilst Grayling could stay. The latter actually became campaign manager for Theresa May’s push at the leadership, which turned out to be a wise move.
When May finished announcing her first Cabinet in July 2016, Grayling was Transport Secretary. He had finally been given the chance to run the Department he’d first scrutinised when elected to Parliament a decade-and-a-half earlier. As he put it himself, in a speech at the National Transport Awards in October, he’s ‘the Transport Secretary who wanted to be Transport Secretary.’
He made himself busy from the beginning, with a series of visits to different parts of the country, such as the Midlands and the North-West, from where he talked about investing in regional transport links. This reflected his own priorities, but also those that he had inherited. David Cameron’s Government had already set aside £15 billion for renovating Britain’s roads, pushed ahead with HS2, and embarked on other schemes such as HS3 and a Trans-Pennine tunnel. A large part of Grayling’s job has been to manage these pre-existing projects.
Other parts of Grayling’s job have included his crackdown on mobile phone use and his support for expansion at Heathrow, but the biggest issue he faces now is surely diesel. He has not been silent on the subject. In February this year, he advised motorists to ‘take a long, hard think about what they need’ and ‘make best endeavours to buy the least polluting vehicle they can.’ He added: ‘I don’t think diesel is going to disappear, but someone who is buying a car to drive around a busy city may think about buying a low-emission vehicle rather than a diesel.’
As we explained before the election, it remains to be seen how Grayling’s words will be translated into actual legislation. Another department, DEFRA, is currently working an Air Quality Plan that has to be published by the end of July. The draft version of the plan didn’t contain many specific commitments. It did, however, raise the possibility of higher taxes for diesel vehicles, alongside a scrappage scheme to compensate their drivers.
There are mixed accounts of Grayling’s views. In February, the Telegraph reported that he had privately expressed his support for a scrappage scheme. However, in April, the Sun reported that he thought such a scheme would be too expensive.
Besides, these aren’t entirely Grayling’s decisions to make. The new Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, will have a major say too, as will the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. All the time, the environmental groups and judges who forced the Government to release an Air Quality Plan in the first place will be looking over everybody’s shoulders.
All of which means: this is an especially demanding time to be Transport Secretary. The challenges are enormous, the policies are controversial, and the decisions will affect millions of motorists. It’s a good thing that Grayling has been preparing for this job for years.