This article is from the April issue of Total Politics
The most important life lesson for Justine Greening happened when she was only seven or eight. After discovering a love of swimming, she was asked to join a team in her South Yorkshire hometown.
Rotherham Metro was the name of the new team and Bill Furniss was the man setting it up. A few years later, he would coach Rebecca Adlington to two Olympic medals in Beijing. But back when he was coaching a very young Greening at the 50 and 100m, Furniss provided important principles that have stayed with the transport secretary.
She says: “Trekking up and down all those lengths for all those hours taught me that, although talent is important, actually, if you really want to be successful you’ve got to be prepared to go for longer, put more effort in – with a heavy dash of sheer bloody-mindedness.”
She adds: “It did teach me persistence and sticking at something if you want to get there.”
And when the physical pain started to build, with the lactic acid burning in her muscles, the catchphrase shouted over and over again from the side of pool by Furniss was “kick through it!” Even now, the memory causes Greening to grimace.
Fast forward to 2012, and Greening has a place at the cabinet table during an exceptionally busy period for her department. She has been given the green light to introduce huge investment into Britain’s railways and the Department for Transport (DfT) is at the heart of the government’s strategy as “a driver of economic growth”, to use Greening’s phrase.
The transport secretary has fans in government. A gregarious character, she lacks aloofness. Why do politicians rate her? Speaking to one member of the government who worked with her at the Treasury and on transport, he reels off platitudes that could be applied to any talented MP. “She’s straight-talking, motivated, clear-sighted,” he starts. “But what really stands Justine out is that she’s exceptionally canny.”
The decision to go ahead with the new High Speed 2 (HS2) line in January could have quickly become nasty for the new transport secretary, who was promoted from her ministerial position as economic secretary to the Treasury last autumn in the mini-reshuffle following Liam Fox’s resignation.
Instead, with some deftness, she got through the announcement without major discontent from affected Conservative colleagues on the railway line route, including Welsh secretary Cheryl Gillan.
Although there have been successes, there remain urgent issues requiring answers from Greening. Train passengers are not enjoying fare rises way above inflation and the government is yet to lay out its aviation policy in detail. Greening’s advancement may have been rapid, but she must now deal with some tricky decisions that can’t wait forever in her ministerial red box.
Early in the Total Politics interview in her departmental office, Greening springs a surprise. It was thought that a move to up the motorway speed limit to 80mph, initially mooted by her predecessor Philip Hammond, was only due for consultation. But now Greening is actively considering it. “I’ve always been clear in my mind that there is a case for looking at that,” she reveals. “Where we have a piece of motorway where we can manage speed, we can study the conditions and the traffic – and the road permits it – then, yes, maybe we can look at whether we up the speed limit to 80mph. The question is, in what circumstances do we do that. [We need to] address the perfectly reasonable point that there is a safety issue.”
Greening describes herself as “a classic London driver”, owning a car but not using it that much. To travel to work, she either gets the tube or uses a government car if she’s carrying red boxes. Greening is horrified by the idea of strikes going on during the Olympics, as recently suggested by the general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey. “All that work that so many people are putting in to make sure the Olympics is going to be something people remember and smile about when they think about it… When I think that somebody might think… The fact it even crossed his mind, let alone saying it, I thought was really disgraceful.”
Battles with the trade unions may come in the summer, while the announcement to go ahead with HS2 lies in the recent past. Greening says she put “a lot of mental and emotional effort into it to make sure I got it right”, claiming: “We looked really robustly at all the alternatives.”
However, for Greening, there was no other choice. “Our railways were finished off by the Victorians. In 1900 the population in England was 32 million. Now it’s 52 million but we’ve got the same railway network that the Victorians built for their population. There was always a sense that would become full. We know we’re going to get to that point in the mid-2020s. And we have to do something about it.” She admits that there is plenty of work to come on the new railway line but is already thinking ahead to an eventual link-up to Scotland.
It is above-inflation rises in train fares that are causing angst right now. Train travel is becoming ever more expensive. Greening is pleased she was able to announce that fare rises would be kept to RPI plus one per cent, rather than three per cent, soon after arriving at DfT. However, that only applies to this year. The higher-rate rises will be introduced in 2013. Also, her recent rail command paper suggested some peak fares could increase even further, after a consultation.
Greening is only able to add vague hopes rather than definite promises. She says: “I’d really like it if we could make sure that fares remain affordable. I have to look at how we’re progressing on the McNulty agenda [a report laying out how to achieve value for money on the railways] and also what’s happening in the broader economy. What I have done is illustrate that in this job I will look at affordability, and I will try, where I think fares are getting unaffordable, to do what I can to make sure they stay affordable.”
She is able to provide more immediate ideas on how people buy train tickets. There are plans to introduce oyster-style cards in England and Wales. “Our fares and ticketing system has still got a heavy hint of 1970s about it,” says Greening. “For most people they want to see an approach that’s way more modern so we’ll be consulting on that. You might end up in the future being able to buy a train ticket from your local library, post office or newsagent.”
As an MP representing a constituency directly under the Heathrow flight path, Greening has no inclination to consider a third runway for the airport. When it’s put to her that she’s now simply managing the decline of Britain as the home for a hub airport, Greening hits back: “Not at all, actually.
“We recognise that we’ve got to make sure our hub airport remains competitive and well-connected. It’s easy to talk down Heathrow’s connectivity but it is one of the best-connected airports in the world. The challenge is making sure we don’t just stay well-connected with markets in North America, Europe and more traditional economies we’ve traded with. We’ve got to make we stay connected with new economies, new investment and new business and that’s the challenge. How can we make sure we make the best out of the capacity we have for aviation? They’re not easy questions to answer.”
And how close is she to finding them? “Alongside the draft aviation strategy, we will kick off a broader piece of work, looking at our hub airport status and how we can maintain that in the medium and long-term of our country. They are challenging questions but it’s really important to get answers. If we have the right process and make sure it’s got the right quality of input into it, whether it’s from companies, from the aviation sector or from residents, that’s going to put us in the best possible position to get the right answer.”
Transport is a varied brief and Greening entered the department with a to-do list that required rapid attention. When asked how she leads the DfT as a still relatively green cabinet minister, Greening replies: “What people need from you is the clear sense of direction. They want to know what your priorities are. Yeah, they do want to know that you’re putting your back into the role and getting on with it. Hopefully I try and run the department in a way that means people feel they’re in a team.”
Greening says she doesn’t stand on ceremony and is trying to foster a culture of open ideas within the department. “What I’m trying to do is unleash all that creativity that we’ve got. I like to try and cut through the hierarchies. I deal with everyone the same. If I’m ever in the lift and there are other people, I always have a chat.”
In May 2005, Greening’s triumph in Putney was a rare good moment for the Conservative Party. On an otherwise disappointing evening that heralded Tony Blair’s third election victory, the blonde 36-year-old became a pre-A-List poster girl for a new kind of Tory MP. She sniggers at this idea, with a sarcastic “thanks”. Back then, she was “staggered at the level of focus” that she received after her election. Rather than get star-struck, she put her head down and “just got on with the job”.
It was a late realisation that a political career was for her. Brought up in the steel heartlands of South Yorkshire, Greening’s father and grandfather both worked in the industry. “I grew up seeing a lot of change around me,” says Greening, “and I wanted to understand what that was all about. I saw it affect my family. I think that was why I was interested in economics – I wanted to understand and pick what was going on and how everything related to it. I was interested in understanding why people have reached such different views about the economy and what happened.”
With that background, it would, perhaps, have been expected for Greening to become involved with the Labour Party. She replies: “I reached my view and it was a different conclusion to the one other people reached. I’ve always respected people’s differences of opinion but I guess I’m in the Conservative Party because when you have a problem, you have to confront it. You don’t run away from it.”
But any political views were more instinctual than a driving force in Greening’s formative years. It was not a culture that surrounded her growing up. “Nobody in my family ever did politics. We discussed politics a lot but that was just life going on around us. It was issues on our doorstep. The same in the local school. People talked about what was going on but I don’t think I ever saw it as politics. I saw it as things happening in my area.”
Unusually for a cabinet minister, Greening didn’t get involved in politics at Southampton University, where she studied economics. Although there wasn’t the formal involvement, she felt sufficiently spurred on to start leafleting for the Conservatives during one of their lowest moments in the mid-1990s.
“I just wanted to do my little bit, as I thought it would be, in demonstrating to people that we’re still the Conservative Party,” she says. “We were going through a period of change and reflecting on what happened in 1997, but we were still there. At some point, if the public wanted a different option, we would still be there for them.
“At the beginning my assumption was that I’d just be doing a bit of leafleting.” Greening laughs. “Then, eventually I got asked to stand and I became a local councillor. I really enjoyed that. I never even thought about being an MP.” But local MP Eleanor Laing spotted Greening’s talent and told her: “You could have a go Justine, why not?” Greening adds: “It was less of a decision to become an MP and more of a decision to have a go and see how it went.”
It has turned out to be a pretty successful move. In government, Greening has clearly benefitted from her close relationship with “Treasury”. (It seems that when you have worked there, you can drop the definite article.) Because she’s an ally of George Osborne, Greening can claim proudly that “the department is slap bang in the middle of what the government is trying to do to get the economy back on its feet”. As economic secretary, she “really enjoyed working with George Osborne” and remains “very proud of having been part of that team”. The step up to cabinet sees Greening dealing with what she terms the “bigger ticket issues”. There are some similarities with her previous role. At the Treasury, she started looking at reducing toll prices on the Humber Bridge. At the DfT, she was able to finish that plan.
While working for the chancellor, she also looked after many of the public-facing taxes such as road tax and fuel duty. She can’t really be happy about the rise in petrol prices now she’s transport secretary, can she? “We all want to make sure that whether you’re travelling by train or by car, it’s affordable,” replies Greening. “We try. Whether its fuel duty or lessening fare rises for passengers on the railways, we do what we can. It’s a very tight set of public finances. I think we’ll look back on this period and feel we managed down to the last penny to get through it.”
Greening does feel her experience in the Treasury changed her. “Going through the emergency Budget [in 2010] was a very difficult process. There were no easy answers to getting our public finances back into order. I generally start from a perspective of asking myself a really basic question: ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ Then I work back from that to find out what the answer should be. But many of those answers are not straight-forward, or easy, or palatable. But I think we did the right thing. You can’t run away from problems.”
That last thought harks back to the reason she became a Conservative. Greening’s politics aren’t always easy to define. A former accountant, she appears to have a slight distain for intellectualism. “I’m much more of a doing person. I don’t mind arguing for a reason but I was probably less into arguing for no reason,” she says.
Unlike some of her cabinet colleagues, there is no sense she’s become ‘captured’ by the language of Whitehall. There is the odd transport cliché – “well down the track” – but no jargon.
Greening describes herself as a “collaborative” politician. She has recently started working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on motor insurance and she is eager to work with new environment secretary Ed Davey on providing better opportunities for people to move from petrol to hybrid cars. When it’s pointed out that her two examples are both Liberal Democrat cabinet ministers, she replies: “I don’t think politics always has to be pistols at dawn.”
Greening isn’t alone among Conservatives in being comfortable working with Lib Dems in government, but the only time she seems at a loss is when I repeat a quote she gave in one of her first post-election interviews in May 2005. She told The Guardian: “I’m not a Thatcherite. I’m very different in my political philosophy from her. I’m pro-free trade, but anti- the death penalty, for example.”
Greening laughs uncertainly, and says: “I don’t remember saying that at all.” If she’s now less sure about dismissing the Thatcherite label, how would she describe her political philosophy?
“It’s relatively pragmatic, not overly idealistic. I don’t have to have everything as part of some grand intellectual plan. My politics is quite grounded in what it’s going to mean for people. I don’t feel the need to do a grand plan just for the sake of it. If we need to do something big, it’s because there’s a big problem. That’s where I’ll focus my efforts on people’s priorities. I guess my politics is incredibly grounded in my community, what I think is quite a gritty need for people to have questions they need answered, not some intellectual discussion going on.”
As someone who feels she “gets on with loads of MPs”, Greening admits she misses seeing her friends in Parliament as much as she used to. “I used to love those PMQs sessions up on the backbench sat between Keith Simpson and Tim Loughton,” she says. Now, when Greening sits on the frontbench she still yells and makes quips but has to use “a slightly softer voice”.
The transport secretary does enjoy being closer to the Labour benches in the Commons chamber for one reason. It provides her with an even better view of Ed Balls and his PMQs gestures. “I think he looks like a flight attendant,” she giggles. “I keep looking for where the emergency exits are, which he’s apparently signing. It’s like a cross between a flight attendant and Peggy from Hi-de-Hi!.”
Greening still swims when she can. Completing 25 lengths at her local pool helps clear her head and provide an escape from the hectic day job. But she remembers her old swimming coach and the lessons she learnt from the hard training. She says: “If Bill Furniss gets to read this, I’d like to say a very public thank you to him.”