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Introducing the new-old Transport Secretary

Now that the general election is done with, and David Cameron has chosen his all-Tory government, it’s time to ask: who is the new Secretary of State for Transport?

And the answer? Well, actually, it’s the same as the old one. Patrick McLoughlin has been reappointed to the role that he’s occupied since the reshuffle of September 2012. Back then, he replaced Justine Greening. Right now, no-one’s replacing him.

McLoughlin’s background is of the sort that Conservatives like to crow about, for it undermines many of the usual stereotypes. And I use the word ‘undermines’ on purpose. He is the son and the grandson of miners, and he became a miner himself. In fact, McLoughlin was labouring at the Littleton Colliery in Staffordshire when the bitter industrial disputes of the 1980s took place. But rather than joining his fellow union members in their anger, he did something quite unique. He appeared on stage at the Conservative Party conference in 1984 to profess himself a working miner.

Soon afterwards, he became a Tory MP. McLoughlin took the seat of West Derbyshire that had been vacated by Matthew Parris. This constituency has since been reshaped and renamed as Derbyshire Dales, but that’s not the only thing to have changed. When McLoughlin won it in a by-election in 1986, his majority was only 100 votes. After this year’s election, it’s now 14,044.

But McLoughlin’s greatest political achievement is his ascension to the role of Transport Secretary. It may have appeared to come from nowhere; given that he was the Government’s Chief Whip at the time, responsible for dragging his recalcitrant parliamentary colleagues into line. But he did actually have prior experience of the Department for Transport. Back in the Eighties, among numerous roles in Margaret Thatcher’s governments, he was made a junior minister for transport. He occupied that role for three years.

Which is roughly the same amount of time that he’s now spent as Transport Secretary, making him one of the most durable of modern times. Until McLoughlin’s appointment, there had been seven different Transport Secretaries in ten years. One of these, Labour’s Geoff Hoon, managed only eight months in the job. The Department for Transport has a knack for transporting its own ministers off the premises.

There have been times during McLoughlin’s reign when it almost looked as though he’d walk away by himself, in disgust. One of his first tasks was to deal with the fallout from the West Coast Main Line fiasco. He cancelled the previous competition for the franchise; ordered a pair of reviews into what had gone wrong; and set about pointing the finger of blame at his own civil servants. The problems lay ‘only and squarely within the Department for Transport,’ he said at the time. It was a punchy start.

It was also something of a colonic irrigation for the government’s transport policy. The controversies that had nagged at McLoughlin’s predecessor had been pushed aside, leaving him free to express a simple message: ‘Invest. In. Infrastructure.’ That’s how he put it in his first speech as Transport Secretary to the Conservative Party conference. And that’s basically how he’s put it ever since.

To some extent, McLoughlin was fortunate that investing in infrastructure had become one of the Coalition government’s priorities. When George Osborne first swept into the Treasury five years ago, eager to tame the nation’s budget deficit, he decided to stick with Alistair Darling’s planned cuts to capital expenditure. But, two years later, he came to regret that decision. Those cuts were too strict. A bit of extra capital spending would give construction workers something to do, whilst making the country run more smoothly for the rest of us.

So that is what happened. On top of the Coalition’s existing projects, such as HS2, more were added. More road renovations, more train lines, more… well, more of anything that can made out of concrete and steel. It all culminated with last year’s proposal for a HS3 line, as well as Osborne’s grand £15 billion plan for Britain’s road network.

This puts McLoughlin in an imperious position: he is Transport Secretary at a time of massive transport policy. No doubt this factored into the Prime Minister’s decision to retain him in the role. Why get rid of someone who has spent three years putting some of these policies in place? Particularly when many of these policies are yet to be completed? If anything, McLoughlin’s time inside the Coalition government was an apprenticeship for now. Planning will have to make way for the much harder business of doing.    

McLoughlin’s experience of the Thatcher years may also steel him for what is to come. As we’ve pointed out before, the Iron Lady published her own plan for improving Britain’s roads in 1989, but much of it was undone by later protests and spending cuts. Massive infrastructure projects have never been easy.

And there are other dark question marks hanging over this Parliament. What decision will finally be made, after years of delay, about expanding the country’s aviation capacity? Can more be done to fill in the many thousands of potholes that pockmark local byways? And will the Government legislate in response to the Supreme Court’srecent ruling on air pollution?

It’s quite an in-tray that faces McLoughlin at the Department of Transport. But, then again, he’s been there twice before. In some ways, this miner who became a minister personifies the change that people can experience in their lives. In others, he’s continuity itself.   

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