This article is from the February 2013 issue of Total Politics
The lift from the floor of the coal mine was making its way back up to the surface when it came to a stop at the ‘eight foot intake’. This duct formed a vital part of the mine’s ventilation system. A large pressure of air blew through here and into the rest of the underground shafts. Normally, when the lift cage halted here, it would be empty and the air would simply whoosh through. This time, however, there were a number of people in it. One of them was a young Conservative councillor called Patrick McLoughlin leaving his shift slightly early to make a meeting. While representing the party locally, he worked full-time underground. He was about to experience the scariest moment of his life
“The cage got sucked over to the side.” The transport secretary turns pale as he recounts this tale in the safety of his departmental office. McLoughlin actually holds his hand over his eyes at the memory. He continues: “You’re dangling on this bloody piece of rope. As it got sucked over, they put the thing down so that people could walk on [the lift]. Instead of going on the cage, it went under, lifted it up and tipped the cage.”
McLoughlin and the other miners were now tangling at an extreme angle hundreds of feet up the lift shaft. “It was thirty seconds but it seemed like a bloody long time. And there was an under-manager on the lift who was shouting instructions on what to do, thank god.” The lift righted enough to continue ascending but the cage kept swinging from side to side. Just as the group neared the top, anxious to get off the lift and onto firm ground, they were sent back down again. The operators needed to lower it to get the lift’s balance right.
He must now regret heading off to make that particular council meeting. Becoming a Conservative politician was a singular decision for a coal miner to make. McLoughlin had already unsuccessfully stood for the party in a council election a few months after he had started at the pit in 1979. He didn’t keep his politics secret; his colleagues knew his political persuasion. McLoughlin remembers: “While I was a Conservative councillor, I was a ‘Tory bastard’”.
But the other miners’ views took a surprising turn, considering this was the period of the bitter strike of 1984-1985 when pit workers and the Conservative government were engaged in what felt to many like a war. “Once I stood for Parliament in 1983, then things slightly changed. There was a different attitude towards you. ‘We might not agree with him, but he’s actually quite serious about politics.’”
Thirty years later, and the transport secretary’s first five months back in a public role may not have been physically dangerous, but he has had to be extremely serious about his politics, just like back in the early ‘80s. Barely a month after moving into the Department for Transport (DfT), emerging blinking into the sunlight from his seventeen-year service in the whips’ office, McLoughlin was faced with the West Coast Mainline disaster. Civil servants botched the bidding award under his predecessor Justine Greening, a mistake that has cost taxpayers £45m so far and raised grave questions about how simple inflation errors in the DfT’s calculations took place and why they were not spotted.
“An interesting couple of days,” says McLoughlin wryly. He insists that “lessons have been learnt” and believes the civil servants will use it as an example of when something goes badly wrong. “The whole of the civil service from Jeremy Heywood to Philip Rutman [DfT permanent secretary] will all have to learn the lessons from that. It won’t happen again.” The last sentence is stated as if the ability to dish out a good rollicking, honed over years as a whip, has proved a useful skill in McLoughlin’s new role.
The two reports into the debacle, by the Centrica chief executive Sam Laidlaw and Eurostar chairman Richard Brown, are already out, lambasting the lack of management, leadership and a failure to keep ministers informed within the department. “You can’t have that,” says McLoughlin. “You’ve got to have that open relationship where people do speak freely to ministers even if they bring them bad news.”
That’s the civil service told, but what about the politicians? Cabinet ministers should know what’s taking place in their own departments, particularly on such important and potentially costly decisions, shouldn’t they?
“I don’t knock the point,” replies McLoughlin. “Laidlaw did say that ministers were not told, and in fact, when they asked questions they were actually told something else.”
He will admit, under a bit of pressure, that politicians also have “lessons to learn”. “Perhaps we have to ask more awkward and harder questions,” he says, “but the truth of the matter was quite clearly said in Laidlaw that, I’m not imagining it, ministers were not given the right information when they asked questions.”
He creates a vision of cabinet ministers being rather less powerful than we imagine by plaintively adding, “you do rely on the civil service, your senior officials, for making sure you’re abreast of what’s going on.”
I wonder if DfT is now a department wracked by self-doubt and low on morale, with inevitable consequences for its effectiveness under McLoughlin as its new(ish) transport secretary. “We’ll march on,” he insists, and says the money provided by George Osborne for projects such as road improvements show that DfT is viewed as a department that “can deliver”.
It is true that transport has become a department showered in gifts in these austere times by No 10 and the Treasury. Road projects and the highly controversial High Speed 2 railway line are going ahead − the decision and plans anyway.
When McLoughlin was a transport minister from 1989-1992, his secretary of state Cecil Parkinson announced Crossrail at the Conservative Party Conference. Now the railway line across London is being built to open in 2018 – such is the pace of infrastructure building in Britain.
There has been plenty of frustration over the pace of road projects in recent months – David Cameron said the government “was too slow at getting things done” on road and railway projects. The plans are approved, the Treasury provides the money and then nothing happens. McLoughlin notes the fact that ‘shovel ready’ doesn’t appear to mean immediately and reveals he is examining how to put his foot on the accelerator.
“If you look what we’re doing with the railways,” he says, “we have a five year investment plan called the ‘high level output specification’. I’d love to change the name, but for some reason it’s in the legislation. It is set from 2014 to 2019, which Justine [Greening] had just announced before she left. This is where we’re going to electrify a lot of the lines in this country and we don’t do that for roads – we’re a lot more short-term on roads, but I think one of the things that we’ve got to identify is a much better forward plan as far as road investment is concerned.”
A previous interview with Total Politics, when he was in the chief whips’ office, revealed that the transport secretary is scared of flying. The job comes with its fair share of photo calls – a large picture of McLoughlin in a TGV driver’s cab adorns his office wall – so has he been able to avoid going anywhere by plane? Actually, he’s made two trips so far, short flights from Aberdeen and Brussels, which were apparently ok. He also points out that, while no fan of aeroplanes, helicopters don’t pose a problem for him. A visit to China this year, with an unavoidable long-haul flight, presents more of a challenge.
One journey McLoughlin will not be taking is a flight from a new runway at Heathrow. The government will not make any decision on airport expansion during this Parliament. Instead, a commission, led by former head of the Financial Services Authority Sir Howard Davies, will report on aviation after the next general election. For an administration that has claimed to be all-out for economic growth, this smacks of political over national interest. None of the questions around aviation capacity or Heathrow’s future are new; McLoughlin is a secretary of state with two opposite transport modes – full speed on road and rail, stationary on aviation. The transport secretary retorts that: “We need to get a consensus, we need to have a proper report which looks at all the options. So you know if the Boris Island is a goer. Is doing something at Heathrow a goer?”
He points to new routes to China and other Asian countries as evidence that there remains “growth in aviation” alongside continuing building work at Heathrow and Gatwick. An interim report from Davies will arrive at the end of 2013 – “I don’t think it’s that long to wait,” says the transport secretary.
It is this line about political consensus being required that I question McLoughlin further on. He is very keen on it – “I was always trying to get consensus as chief whip, there's no inconsistency in that. I didn’t succeed very often, but I always tried to get consensus as chief whip and the consensus was the prime minister is right.”
Now in charge of transport rather than recalcitrant backbenchers, McLoughlin expands his point: “One of the things we’ve got to try to do with big infrastructure projects in this country is build a political consensus. What stopped us so long on Crossrail is no political consensus. What I’m trying to do on HS2 is build consensus. What I’m trying to do on the airports is have a piece of work that at the end of the day gives consensus. I’m a consensus politician, on infrastructure.”
This could sound reasonable and forward-looking and it is also true that Labour is firmly sitting on the fence on aviation expansion rather than being openly hostile. But how can McLoughlin say that the Davies review will provide a consensus that has hitherto been lacking when the issues have been discussed for decades and all the arguments are already known?
“I’m not sure we do know them all actually,” replies McLoughlin. “When I was in this department before, Boris Island wasn’t an issue. New solutions and new suggestions have come up. There's the Foster plan, the Boris Island plan, there's the Gatwick plan, the Heathrow plan. It’s very interesting that just after we set up the Davies commission, Gatwick announced that they would try to get planning permission for another runway, once the 2019 restriction [on expansion] ended. All that has been bubbling away and certainly wasn’t here 20 years ago, when I was last in the department.”
This is a valid view – and some certainty on aviation capacity would be welcomed – but McLoughlin can’t answer definitively why the review would provide a political consensus that couldn’t be achieved now. All he can do, now that the report is underway with final conclusions after 2015, is say that “I’m pretty sure it will do a good job”.
Whatever the limitations placed upon McLoughlin, there is a clear sense of relief that he is no longer chief whip. The memories of his time there remain fresh. “It’s a lot less frustrating than some of the problems I had when I was chief whip,” he says, when discussing road project delays.
His was a thankless task when faced with more rebellions from 2010-2012 than any other post-war government. With the expenses scandal fresh in voters’ and new MPs’ minds, a hung parliament and a party leadership somewhat detached from the troops in the Commons, Conservative MPs sometimes seemed close to uncontrollable.
It is no wonder that, despite the West Coast debacle and other stresses, McLoughlin looks extremely content while explaining how “nice” and “fascinating” it is for him to be responsible for transport now. Coming into DfT, he found it “a completely different world”. He adds: “Some bits of the department have changed dramatically and other bits you feel like you could almost pick up the issues from where I was 23 years ago.”
One of the most important reasons McLoughlin has survived for so long in his deeply loyal character. His discussions with the prime minister from his time as chief whip have remained private and whatever is contained in his little black book on other MPs doesn’t appear to be used in his climb up the greasy pole.
The transport secretary is an amiable man with no airs or graces. He helps our photographer fix a malfunctioning piece of equipment. On the other hand, every chief whip must display a ruthless side with the troops and McLoughlin was no exception.
Speak to MPs who had been the subject of his displeasure, and a picture emerges of a chief whip who preferred the telephone to face-to-face confrontations and who chose not to, or lacked the ability to, mix up his approach with small talk. “He would say ‘fucking’ a lot,” says one MP, wincing at the memory.
The benefit of such long service in the Conservative whips’ office were that McLoughlin got to know every single Tory MP, including those that subsequently made it into the cabinet.
“He knows lots of things about lots of people,” says one government colleague nervously. It had been assumed by some in his party that the transport secretary would be poor at the despatch box after such a long period away, That proved wishful thinking as McLoughlin has proved light on his feet and capable of projecting the correct tone for proceedings.
MPs who’ve known McLoughlin for a decade talk of a man who is proud of what he has achieved in politics and who remains popular in the MPs’ tea room. It has also proved beneficial to his career, ensuring that he avoided the whips’ retirement village on the backbenches in the September 2012 reshuffle. “His time as a whip and a chief whip show how important it is to keep in contact with colleagues, unlike some of his cabinet contemporaries,” says one minister.
A very public example of McLoughlin getting riled was when he fell out with the Speaker and an unseemly argument broke out between the pair during a Commons sitting at the tail end of 2010. It is believed that McLoughlin sees John Bercow as ‘out for himself’. That evening certainly saw the tensions rise to the surface. “The government chief whip has absolutely no business whatsoever shouting from a sedentary position. ORDER!’ screeched a furious Bercow. It continued in a similar vein for a whole minute as the Commons looked on. The set-to may have been messy but it did not do the then-chief whip’s reputation amongst his party any harm to be seen standing up to the Speaker in such a way.
Regular contact with the prime minister, as McLoughlin briefed him on discontent among the parliamentary party, provided plenty of time to measure David Cameron’s character. The transport secretary describes him as: “A listener, but he is decisive. He may think about an issue for quite some time but once he’s made a decision he’ll stick by it.”
What about how the prime minister views his own party? The relationship between No 10 and the parliamentary party can often be distant and David Cameron has certainly never been loved by most of his MPs.
McLoughlin defends the PM: “David Cameron has grown up in the Conservative party, he knows the Conservative party and he understands the Conservative party. I also think that he understands modern Britain. It’s no good the Conservative party always trying to think about what things were like through some rose tinted glasses, which basically when you take the tint off was never like that anyway.
“I think David does incredibly well in understanding what is needed for the UK to be that big voice on the international stage. I read these ridiculous stories that somehow he doesn’t like the Conservative party, it’s just so ridiculous.”
A recent television interview revealed that McLoughlin believes “sticking to what you believe in wins you elections”. David Cameron’s variety of Conservatism, and whether he actually has one, is the subject of perennial debate, so what does McLoughlin think David Cameron believes in, and why will that win a Conservative majority at the next election?
He replies: “I think the prime minister believes in a country where if you work hard you are rewarded. A country that recognises that people sometimes can’t compete, and can’t be successful and therefore we will try to help them or give them the tools so that they can help themselves. I can’t speak for the PM, but I think that’s very much the kind of society David wants to see. He’s a very proud Briton, a very proud defender of the UK – a country that is a great place to be in, to live in and to have opportunities in.
“I’m sure he would put it a lot better than me, but that’s how I see what David’s trying to achieve as PM. He’s found himself in the unenviable situation of being prime minister of a country which is going through one of the toughest economic times that any PM has had to try and live with – and that has brought some huge problems for him. I think he’s done incredibly well, in the job of managing a coalition, and also an economic situation, which no one could have dreamed we’d be in when he became leader of the Conservative party.”
McLoughlin himself is not an entirely predictable political operator. He is Roman Catholic but a keen supporter of gay marriage. His understated public style is matched by a self-deprecating streak – “I did get a little pulled by Andrew Neil the other day,” he explains, about a recent BBC interview. On his by-election victory, McLoughlin says: “When I first won my seat, I inherited a massive majority of 15,000 and I managed to turn it into a majority of 100.”
His background as a miner makes him unique among the Conservatives and also provides him with credibility in a party often criticised for being over-laden with professional politicians, lawyers and ex-management consultants. The picture of him as a miner with helmet and lamp from his 1983 campaign in Wolverhampton has made the journey from the chief whips’ office to the DfT. It is visible to every visitor to his office.
Detractors believe his blue collar background covers for his limitations too, but then they are yet to enjoy a career as long-lasting. These roots have certainly helped McLoughlin’s career. In 2005, as his leadership campaign gathered pace, David Cameron chose McLoughlin to become his chief whip, ahead of the loyal Andrew Robathan. It was felt McLoughlin’s promotion would indicate Cameron did not rule by clique.
Born in a poor household in Staffordshire, McLoughlin’s father died young. His mother, a factory worker, was left to bring the family up by herself. McLoughlin describes his childhood as “tough” but is also fiercely protective of his mother’s abilities – interjecting during the interview to make it clear that “it wasn’t a bad experience either. My mother struggled bloody hard to bring up her children and she always made sure we were well looked after. I will yield to nobody that she didn’t do what was necessary.”
His school didn’t provoke any academic drive from him, and McLoughlin left at 16, first becoming an agricultural labourer and then a miner. The politics bug bit after his home town of Cannock had switched to the Tories for the first time ever in the 1970 general election. Patrick Cormack, the victorious MP, used to tour the local schools once a year. He invited McLoughlin’s school to visit him in the House of Commons. The future transport secretary looked around the Palace of Westminster at the age of 15 and, “I thought one day I want to come back here as a Member of Parliament”. He chose to keep this moment of illumination to himself.
McLoughlin credits his background with providing the resilience that “no sort of audience daunts me”. He claims that all the miners he worked with were “far more right wing than I was but voted Labour. You talked to them on Trident, the royal family, the death penalty. God, they were to the right of Genghis Khan.”
With an Old Etonian as a prime minister, and as one of only two Conservative MPs who worked in a manual occupation, does McLoughlin ever feel like the vast majority of his party has no idea what it’s like to be working class?
He says he isn’t sure what counts as working class but he has never been judged by that in the House of Commons. Despite the novelty of being the only ex-miner in the Conservative parliamentary ranks and the fact it has helped him get noticed in the past, McLoughlin chooses not to claim a hard-luck story.
“I’ve never felt disadvantaged being in parliament from that [background], but it’s also no good in politics saying ‘because I’ve done it everybody else can do it’. It’s tough to get into Parliament but I look around and a lot of people in Parliament have found it tough in life. Some people have had an easier existence, and they will perhaps be the first to admit that they’ve had an easier existence.”
He denies that the cabinet looks distinctly moneyed in the public’s eyes, saying: “William Hague, Justine Greening, Philip Hammond, David Jones went to a comprehensive school. I think that there are a couple more. I don’t think it’s as unusual as people would try and like to make out.”
The Derbyshire constituency that has been McLoughlin’s home since he replaced Matthew Parris in the 1986 by-election may be landlocked, but he is a fan of going on cruises for his holidays. His sea-going sense of adventure is also matched by patriotism. McLoughlin is keen to ensure that Britain’s ports are not all sold off to foreign companies.
He explains: “I would hope that not every major port was owned by a foreign company.”
He is wise enough to point out that this doesn’t mean he is anti-investment in the UK. “We’ve got Canadian pension funds which own part of Heathrow airport. If people want to invest in the United Kingdom – fine. Toyota, a few miles away from my own constituency, is one of the largest-ever inward investments in this country. What has happened to the motor industry in this country is absolutely amazing when we consider how it was on its knees in the 1970s.”
Inward investment might be welcome in the UK, but I wonder if McLoughlin has developed a more eurosceptic position now he runs a department. Europe was a major headache for the former chief whip but due to the discontent it provoked among backbench Tories. Stories of Conservative cabinet ministers becoming increasingly anti-European Union regularly appear in the media. Now McLoughlin is experiencing for himself the way in which EU regulations influence and affect his decision-making powers.
A chief whip does not make public pronouncements, but since becoming transport secretary, I asked if McLoughlin had joined their ranks? “Yes, there are aspects of the European Union that I find frustrating. Some of the things that we were trying to do on franchising where we could extend contracts, etc, was a bit frustrating. But, so far, we’ve managed to navigate our way, although some of the times the river has got a bit choppy. We’ve done alright, we haven’t found it too much of a barrier.”
It sounds as if he believes it could easily become a major problem in the future. Does McLoughlin believe we should have a European referendum?
“We need to see where Europe’s going to go,” he says. “There are a lot of unanswered questions around the EU and there is going to be a lot of change in the next couple of years. There might be a time where we think what we want to do, that we want to get out of Europe.
“I’d rather not say who it was, but I had an ambassador in to see me a few weeks ago who was urging me to use our influence in Europe to get something delivered on a transport-related issue. It was to do with fuel and fuel supplies, and it was quite interesting that that particular ambassador was saying ‘please use your influence to try and get that right’. It is all a matter of using the influence we do have.”
With airport capacity parked in a long-term review, a railways bid result scrapped in a humiliating move for the government, and even the ‘shovel-ready’ road projects taking time to get going, it can be unclear what the vision is for Britain’s transport system – rather than it all being siloed in separated zones, as if roads, rail and air were not related.
McLoughlin retorts: “There is much more going on to try and get a better integrated transport system, and perhaps there has been for quite some time in the UK.”
He points to George Osborne’s enthusiasm for protecting and investing in capital projects: “We got an extra billion pounds to the DfT to concentrate on infrastructure projects. I announced some money that’s gone direct to local authorities in December and I will be launching a scheme where local authorities can apply direct to the department where they can bring quick solutions to local problematic ‘pinch points’. These schemes range from one to ten million pounds and they’ll be able to bid for those this year. We’ll take the best ones and get them underway.”
McLoughlin continues: “I’ve got to be slightly careful because it’s not just something I do alone as secretary of state for transport. I’ve got transport authorities [to work with] on electrification taking place in the Northern hub. Our north/south links are actually not too bad. Our east/west links are not so good, so what’s called the Northern Hub − Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds − is quite an important area where we’ve announced a lot of investment. But we have to do that in conjunction with local authorities.”
Looking back to the experience in the mine lift, the memory of which still makes him blanch, has anything in politics compared with those dreadful thirty seconds?
McLoughlin sits back on his departmental office sofa and thinks for a moment. “Not in such a time scale,” he replies. “The great beauty of being a Member of Parliament, is that every day something different will happen to you. Every day something new will come across your doorstep. Sometimes it might be fantastic opportunities or great things to see. Other times, you will be dealing with awful, awful domestic problems. It’s how you can use the office to try and put those right. If I pick up the phone to the director of social services in Derbyshire, he will act on it straight away.
“There are the times when you manage to sort out someone’s long-standing problems. Those are the joyous times of politics and then you get the frustrating times of politics when you are hitting your head against a brick wall time and time again. There was the Stephen Downing case in Bakewell [in McLoughlin’s constituency]. He was convicted of a murder and served 28 years, before he was released on unsafe evidence. I was part of that campaign. They are very rewarding times, to a degree. There are also times when it’s very frustrating. So, there are not many days when you don’t learn something or something new doesn’t come across your doorstep.”
McLoughlin is not the sort of character who would describe his career as a journey. However, his extraordinary long service as a Conservative whip, and his surprising transformation into a late-blooming transport secretary are worthy of note. After a period of fire-fighting, he wants to spend 2013 getting to grips with his department. The McLoughlin philosophy is a simple one: “Don’t dwell too much, you’ve done it, it’s gone, move on.”