Sir Richard Branson is not a man who takes kindly to failing to get his own way. That was why few people were surprised by the Virgin boss’ furious response to the government’s decision to award the West Coast Mainline to his rivals First Group. It wasn’t fair, he protested, and thousands of people seemed to agree, signing a petition criticising the decision.
This morning it transpires that Branson’s frenzied campaign against the contract actually led to the discovery of an enormous mistake at the heart of the bidding process. Civil servants checking their sums before a court case questioning the decision realise that they had in fact got those sums wrong. They had made mistakes in calculating the effect of inflation and passenger numbers. And so new Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has announced the franchise competition will have to be re-run.
How fortunate for Labour, when only yesterday Ed Miliband described the government as an ‘incompetent, hopeless, out of touch, U-turning, pledge-breaking, make it up as you go along, back of the envelope, miserable shower’. This is a hugely embarrassing U-turn, but McLoughlin refused point blank to apologise when interviewed on the Today programme. He said:
‘I’m not going to apologise for what is a terrible mistake that has been made by the department. We need to get to the bottom of what went wrong as far as that is concerned.’
‘Ministers were assured that this was robust. I arrived in the department just under four weeks ago; I was told at that stage there might be some technical points – it became more serious as time went on. When I saw the full extent of the advice I got yesterday afternoon, I took the decision I have taken to put the whole process on pause so we can learn the lessons and we can see what went wrong in this particular area.’
Most government rows are indeed caused by cock-up, not conspiracy, and McLoughlin is distancing himself as much as he possibly can from this particular cock-up, emphasising that he has only just arrived, and it’s the department’s fault, not his.
But the two people facing really awkward questions are the two ministers who oversaw the bidding process: Justine Greening and Theresa Villiers. They will find the revelation that their civil servants when they were in the transport bid failed to account of two elements as basic and obvious as inflation and passenger figures very uncomfortable indeed.