Transport secretary chooses Qatar trip over annual rail fares row
Chris Grayling eventually came out of hiding on Tuesday afternoon.
The job of defending new year rail fair hikes is never an easy one for transport secretaries. But they usually give it a go.
In previous years, Patrick McLoughlin tried to tell angry commuters that “running the railways is a very expensive business” and “the passenger has to make a contribution”.
Last year, Chris Grayling’s preferred approach was to insist that the government had "always fairly balanced" the cost of modernising the railways between the taxpayer and the passenger.
But this year Downing Street spinners appeared to have decided that, with Grayling in the hotseat, the best option was for the transport secretary to be otherwise engaged.
With train fares rising by an average of 3.4% across the country, protests were under way at 40 stations this morning. Meanwhile Number 10 confirmed that Grayling had embarked on a mysterious trip to Qatar where he would be meeting with the prime minister of Qatar and industry figures.
As Labour claimed that Grayling had “gone into hiding”, the prime minister’s spokesperson played down the disappearing act. Asked about the purpose of the visit, he said: "There are ministers visiting a whole host of countries spreading the message that Britain is a very good place to invest and to do business in. Chris Grayling obviously plays an important part in that."
Nevertheless, the decision to let Grayling go to Qatar rather than keep him in the UK to fight the government’s corner was seen by many Westminster watchers as a clear vote of no confidence in the transport secretary. It also comes amid mounting speculation that Grayling - along with Tory chairman McLoughlin and Commons leader Andrea Leadsom - will be sacked in a reshuffle next week.
As journalists demanded to know why Grayling was in hiding, Number 10 decided the game was up and Grayling eventually surfaced late on Tuesday afternoon.
Speaking to Iain Dale on LBC, the transport secretary found himself not only having to defend rail fare rises - but also his own jetsetting. He insisted: "I don’t think I’ve shirked the issue, but I think it’s really important we get out and try and win business for Britain."