Fairness is not a concept known to political reporting. That’s not how the lobby works. I used to be a Westminster correspondent. We hunted as a pack. We kicked those who were down and sucked up to the winners.
In this article, far too late, I will try rescue the reputation of one of Theresa May’s and David Cameron’s most loyal and capable ministers.
Few politicians have been the object of such sustained and brutal criticism as Transport Secretary Chris ‘Failing’ Grayling. Few have deserved it less.
I will show that a great deal of the criticism has been unfair. I’ll argue that Mr Grayling is paying the price for his personal decency and loyalty to colleagues.
Let’s start with the much-vaunted ferry fiasco late last year. He awarded a £14m ferry contract for the shipping of emergency medical supplies to a company without any ships or port contracts. This episode made Mr Grayling into a standing target for every TV pundit or journalist in search of a cheap laugh.
I have looked into this episode and found that Mr Grayling’s conduct cannot be criticised. First of all, it is important to recognise that the root of the problem has nothing to do with him at all.
Chancellor Philip Hammond was slow in authorising Whitehall cash to make contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit. Some believe that this was deliberate sabotage in order to make hard Brexit impossible. Be that as it may, Grayling’s own department of transport had no choice but to manage the consequences of the Chancellor’s inertia – and take the blame as a result.
Late last summer the advice from government analysts suddenly changed. They stated that the disruption created by no-deal Brexit would be much more severe than thought. There was an urgent need to ship hundreds of thousands of tonnes of vitally needed NHS supplies into Britain in the need of no deal.
Grayling wanted to act at once. Hammond procrastinated. The Treasury only signed off on preparations at the end of November when there were just four months left before Britain was due to crash out of the EU on March 29th.
Chris Grayling (and his capable team of civil servants) swung into action to ensure that travel to the European Union would be unimpeded. This meant taking urgent measures on rail, freight, aviation, road haulage and private cars.
Mr Grayling has been widely mocked for the deal he struck with Seaborne Freight, a tiny company. Treasury delaying tactics left him no choice but to enter into this arrangement if Britain was to leave the EU in good order. Had no deal happened, his clear-thinking ensured that disaster would have been averted. Critics who mock Seaborne for having no ships merely display their ignorance. There are plenty of airlines which don’t own planes, and almost all train operating companies rent their trains.
I now turn to his much-criticised probation reforms. Not one of Grayling’s critics, so far as I can tell, have pointed out that these reforms were part of the coalition agreement struck between Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the wake of the 2010 General Election. Nor that probation privatisation was initiated by Tony Blair and supported by his successor Gordon Brown, although neither was able to implement it.
I haven’t seen anybody reminding the public that they were praised at the time by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg as ‘something that takes and builds on the best from the public sector, and the best from the private sector, and the best from the voluntary sector to break the cycle of crime for good.’
Nobody has pointed out that Mr Grayling made these reforms under conditions of supreme difficulty when the Ministry of Justice budget was under ferocious attack from George Osborne’s Treasury. Nor that, far from being the dogmatic privatiser of legend, he actually rejected Ken Clarke’s proposal to privatise the entire prison estate. Nor have they pointed out that his reforms did what they set out to achieve and brought down the level of reoffending.
Of course there have been serious faults of implementation of the system – but it’s unfair to blame Grayling alone. As Mussolini’s son-in-law Count Ciano once misquoted Tacitus: ‘victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan.’
Meanwhile Mr Grayling’s critics tend to ignore his achievements. For decades successive Transport Secretaries have dodged the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow. With Grayling at the helm it’s at last been voted through, and with a massive overall majority.
Grayling in the first four months of this year has built more miles of electrified railways than Labour managed in 13 years. His much criticised work programme has helped to achieve a historic reduction in long-term unemployment. He more than any other minister deserves the credit for the posthumous pardon for Alan Turing, the computer genius who was convicted for being a homosexual and later killed himself in a stain on the post-war British State.
I now turn to the structural reasons why Grayling is unpopular. Again and again, he’s stood up to powerful vested interests. He faced down Southern Railways unions when they went on strike. He stood up to big business by banning Stagecoach and Virgin from bidding on franchises after they conceived a plan to offload pension liabilities onto the taxpayer. And he made himself unpopular with the legal profession by continuing Ken Clarke’s policies of limiting legal aid.
In the process, he’s turned himself into a target. Here’s Ian Dunt, the editor of Politics.co.uk, on Grayling: ‘It’s easy to turn this into another just-how-shit-is-Chris-Grayling story. But we know the answer to that. He is epically, unimaginably shit, on a colossal scale. We knew that ages ago.’ BBC Radio Five Live presenter Rachel Burden blamed Grayling for ‘f*** ups, mismanagement, controversies, and yet he’s still there in Cabinet.’
The kindest thing that can be said about this sort of commentary is that political journalists act as a herd. We kick politicians when they’re down. Safety in numbers.
Many of Grayling’s Cabinet colleagues get a better press, even though they’re less capable. But they are better at talking themselves up. They leak like buckets and are rewarded by journalists for providing information and stitching up fellow ministers.
Mr Grayling may be paying the price for quietly getting on with his job.
Again and again he’s taken the flak for others. At the Ministry of Justice, he copped a great deal of the blame that should have been aimed at the austerity Chancellor George Osborne. More recently he’s been a useful air raid shelter for the Chancellor Philip Hammond.
He’s also paid a price for being brave. He’s carried out difficult reforms. In this he’s made powerful enemies in business, the unions and the press. And now they are exacting their revenge. It’s time to stand up for a politician of competence, decency and very broad shoulders. If Boris Johnson has anything sense, he will reappoint Grayling when he forms his government later today.