He is the unflappable leader and stalwart defender of the stray “big dog” of Downing Street. Through the prism of Conservative politics, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is on a winning streak.
But as crisis looms in a key part of his daily job – running the railways – a series of bizarre interventions have raised eyebrows and irritation. What exactly is going on, the industry wonders, with Shapps and the Department of Transport?
The rumbling concern erupted into outright condemnation in some quarters, as the biggest rail union, the RMT, launched a nationwide strike ballot, amid lost revenue, deep cuts and a uncertain future.
While the pace of promised reform and investment has been slow, Shapps has promoted personal wheezes that some parts of the rail industry believe are at best misguided and sound like YouTube while Rome burns.
Shapps’ allies say the videos, shot at high speed on a shoestring budget, are reaching new audiences – and a minister who chained it has proven relatively viral. Using acting skills from his past life as Michael Green, when he had a job as a get-rich-quick marketer, Shapps rattled off movies promising to put an end to ‘irritating’ train ads, it has been reported. a public vote to choose where to place the railway’s head office and rebranded a minor ticketing promotion as the Great British Rail Sale.
Another production from Shapps – explaining the measures taken to combat noisy cars – was due to drop this weekend.
Few railroad figures openly expressed their displeasure, but other non-employees came out blazing. In a scathing op-ed, industry publication boss Nigel Harris Rail, described Shapps, an avid pilot, as the least committed secretary of state he had met in 25 years, accusing him of “not only a shameful lack of leadership, but also a shameful lack of interest “. Speaking to the Department of Transport, Harris was told that the Secretary of Transport “does not deal with the railways”.
Even generally supportive organizations such as the Railway Industry Association (RIA) have issued desperate statements. In April, the RIA marked 900 days since the government updated its rail engineering works pipeline, “leaving the industry in the dark”. Under Shapps predecessor Chris Grayling, the annual DfT update was crucial for rail providers to plan ahead.
For some, the lack of commitment is not necessarily a bad thing. A senior rail official said: “Grayling would have constantly interfered in rail… the danger with Shapps is that he doesn’t, until there is a bit of political advantage or a TikTok video. »
Christian Wolmar, railway historian and writer, says: “He is one of the most effective communicators in government. But he has no interest in transportation other than general aviation, and where he can fly a plane. The person managing transport is A Gilligan and is located at No 10.”
This portrayal of the relative influence of Andrew Gilligan, Boris Johnson’s transport adviser, is disputed by government insiders, although No 10’s interest in investing in rail as a way to “build up level” has kept the DfT more on a leash than some departments. As a well-placed rail source put it, Shapps is “caught between a rock and a hard place…any major announcement has to go through Gilligan at No 10 for review and editing, and the Treasury holds all the purse strings”.
The scrutiny is intense, with a major state subsidy – an additional £15bn since the start of the pandemic, to replace lost revenue from passenger numbers that remain stubbornly below pre-pandemic levels – and battles over investment squeezing the DfT between No 10 and No 11 in key decisions on HS2 and the integrated rail plan. As one industry leader put it: “Government is more involved than it has ever been, even under British Rail.
State micromanagement was, ironically, identified as a problem in the Williams review of the old franchise system, which was abolished out of economic necessity under Shapps in 2020. But as the industry waits for reforms in the The long-delayed Williams-Shapps plan, the urge to interfere on the little things has yet to be suppressed.
The Great British Rail Sale was started in Shapps’ office and is said to have surprised some, including the fledgling Great British Railways. Even within the DfT, senior officials expressed shock at the final presentation: “It was mind-blowing. What were they thinking? »
Officials complain about Shapps’ lack of attention to detail and his reluctance to be briefed by experts outside his inner circle. “He doesn’t have meetings with people, he just sees his immediate team. Everything must be written on two sides of paper for him.
Shapps’ allies confirm he will politely reject longer briefing notes – but argue brevity is crucial in running a high-profile department, where all sectors have been plunged into crisis during Covid. “He brings home a red box every night and reads everything,” said one.
Rail remains, sources insist, the heart of his ministry – and takes a disproportionate amount of time compared to cars and even buses. Shapps said he wanted the transport position and, as a rail commuter, he understands the passenger perspective, they claim. One said: ‘Give the man a bloody chance…he’s got a £96billion rail settlement, and he’s trying to reshape the rail industry’ via the Williams-Shapps plan.
For Anthony Smith, chief executive of passenger watchdog Transport Focus, “the litmus test is whether they keep the investment going … and this Secretary of State has done that. »
Nonetheless, the perception remains prevalent that Shapps is promoting herself, Liz Truss-style, for a position at the firm more for her own sake.
“It would all be fine if he paid attention to everything else. There are so many major issues that he ignores,” Harris says. The videos are innocuous but also damaging, he argues: The head office vote, potentially uprooting thousands of people from Milton Keynes on a public whim, could bleed vital staff: “When you move, you bleed.
the Rail the editor is clear: “He is the worst transport secretary I can remember. And yet, he’s actually a very good communicator – and could do a lot of good.