Patrick McLoughlin was the obvious choice to confront Ed Miliband as the Labour leader tries to steal the ‘One Nation’ mantle from the Conservative party. The former miner opened his speech by remarking that the last time he had addressed conference was 28 years ago. He then invited delegates to watch a video of this speech, delivered when the Transport Secretary was a young man, telling Margaret Thatcher that he was proud to be a ‘Tory scab’ who crossed picket lines. He then underlined that in the class war that Miliband tried to ignite last week, McLoughlin was the winner:
‘I am the son of a miner. I am the grandson of a miner. I was born in Staffordshire and I went to work in the Staffordshire coalfield just up the road from here. And before I go on, I want to make one point clear. If you want to understand One Nation, Mr Miliband, I’ll show you One Nation. He is standing at this podium. I am a One Nation Tory.’
He included warm words for David Cameron and George Osborne, who he praised as being part of a government that has ‘the fight, the determination, the vision to take the tough choices that will get out country back to strength’. It was striking that the applause for this section wasn’t exactly overwhelming.
The Transport Secretary also had a number of sores to address in his speech. He mentioned the West Coast Mainline fiasco as quickly as he possibly could, saying:
‘As Transport Secretary, I’ll be doing my bit. I don’t hide from the challenge. There will be setbacks as well as successes. Last week, when we hit one on the West Coast line, I came straight out and confronted it. And we will put things right.’
Some of that putting things right may well include McLoughlin’s predecessor Justine Greening and former Transport Minister Theresa Villiers answering questions on their involvement in the bidding process. Transport Select Committee chair Louise Ellman has written to him only this morning asking for further details on the independent review that the department has commissioned, and for details on the relationship between staff who have been suspended as a result of the revelations and ministers.
The Secretary of State was more forthcoming about Heathrow, or at least he talked for more than a few seconds about Britain’s aviation problem. He actually referred to Boris Johnson by name, which roused a few giggles from the audience, saying:
‘Boris wants an island. I want an answer. And his idea is one of many potential ones. Everyone I meet seems to have their own plan. So Sir Howard Davies is going to chair a commission to look at every option fairly. I hope all main parties will back his findings. Because like so many transport challenges you can’t just click your fingers and fix it.’
McLoughlin has arrived in his department at a stage where he might wish he could click his fingers and fix a lot of the problems it faces. But he was clearly confident that any Labour threat to his One Nation Toryism could be dismissed with a click of his fingers and a couple of deft words about his own story.