Justine Greening’s troubled journey
Spare a thought for poor Justine Greening this week. This time last year, she was enjoying a senior backroom role as Economic Secretary at the Treasury. Monthly news channel appearances and the occasional head-to-head on a radio talk show were the height of that job’s duties in the public eye.
Things are a bit different now, though. Ever since Greening entered the cabinet late last year after the exit of Liam Fox, she’s been putting out fires left, right and centre. She was handed responsibility over one of the most divisive topics within the Conservative Party, and has frequently locked horns with it on the front pages ever since. No, not Europe, immigration or the NHS – transport.
Quickly laying to rest the ‘token Tory cabinet female’ slurs from critics after her appointment, the new Transport Secretary got to work right away. Implementing the same high level of political intelligence she used at the Treasury, Greening aimed to make her mark swiftly. She chose to do so by accelerating investment plans for High Speed 2, giving formal approval to the country’s most comprehensive transport enhancement project in decades. Major improvements to the national rail network with a few positive economic and industrial knock-on effects – a policy about as contentious as free ice cream for children, right? Wrong.
A significant number of Conservative MPs represent rural constituencies with large areas of natural beauty between the hustle and bustle of London and Birmingham (seventeen, to be precise). The point of HS2 is to quicken the commute between these two cities, shedding about half an hour off the journey time. This would mean a more direct route – straight through the pretty fields and tranquil scenery near the homes of some of Greening’s Tory colleagues. Ice cream melts.
The subsequent controversy stretches from the safe distance of the backbenches to the uncomfortable intimacy of the cabinet table. Secretary of State for Wales Cheryl Gillan has told her Buckinghamshire constituents to be “very, very sure” that she would defy the party whip on a Commons HS2 vote. This would be the main strand of the debacle, if some members of the whips office weren’t so against the idea themselves. However, another tempestuous railway debate has recently pushed this one to the back of Ms Greening’s mind.
Fresh conflict, this time over the operator of the West Coast Main Line, has hit the front pages. Justine Greening isn’t at loggerheads with a fellow politician, though. After she handed the operational rights of one of the UK’s most profitable train lines to First Group, the Transport Secretary is battling it out with Virgin Chairman, Sir Richard Branson.
If this was a balanced debate with a clear outlook, Greening’s path ahead would be relatively smooth. On one side, First have won the process, and called it “rigorous” and “fair”. On the other, Virgin lost the rights and complained about the “flawed” and “insane” bidding system. But this isn’t a balanced debate, and the path ahead has more bumps than a Gloucestershire country lane.
Richard Branson is a knight of the realm and arguably Britain’s most famous entrepreneur. Voters are familiar with Virgin, which followed the ‘rags to riches’ fairytale path which British society loves. People don’t know FirstGroup, or its Chief Executive Nicholas Grimshaw half as well.
But before the work experience kid has a chance to pick up a bucketload of paracetemol for the Department for Transport, there’s one more issue for Justine Greening to tackle. The Conservative Party is, once again, split over one of the most significant policies on her watch. The Transport Secretary is adamant that a third runway should not be built at Heathrow, and to be fair to her, she initially had united support.
The 2010 Tory manifesto referenced the party’s plans to make Britain’s busiest airport “better, not bigger”. At the first Prime Ministerial debate, David Cameron said “if you get a Conservative government, you absolutely know the third runway won’t go ahead”. The coalition agreement states outright that a third runway will not be built. I get frustrated when voters justify not turning up at a polling station with the ‘politicians say one thing and do another’ argument, but they’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head here.
From backbench MP Tim Yeo’s public call in yesterday’s Telegraph to the whispers within the Treasury that George Osborne is warming to the idea, Ms Greening’s anti-expansion army is losing soldiers. She may believe that a considerable increase in noise pollution and other general disruptions would make life difficult for local residents, but she’s fighting a dangerous war. Even David Cameron’s gone quiet now.
The Prime Minister’s true feelings over the future of aviation probably won’t come to light any time soon – there is a more important part to this story over the coming days and weeks. Why does the Transport Secretary note the consequences of a potential third runway, but not HS2? Because her constituency is only a little further than a stone’s throw away from Heathrow, and she won the 2010 Election with a pledge against a third runway. It’s probably a safe bet that the Transport Secretary might be jetting towards a different position in the ever-looming reshuffle.Tagged in: conservative party, david cameron, heathrow, Justine Greening, transport
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