Major miner: Patrick McLoughlin interview

Written by Sam Macrory on 25 March 2014 in Interview
Tory stalwart and former coalminer, straight talker and delicate negotiator, long-serving whip and coalition softy: current transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin is an enigma at the heart of government. Sam Macrory finds out just what he’s learnt at the university of life, and how he brings those lessons to the department’s infrastructure headaches. Photos by Ray Burmiston

Jaded commuters everywhere may be uplifted, or crushed a little bit more, by the following travel update: even the secretary of state for transport has been left stranded at the platform.

Last month, after catching the train from Duffield, Patrick McLoughlin arrived in Derby seven minutes later to board a mainline service to London. At least that was the plan.

“We pulled into the station at Derby to see the London train just pull out, literally as we walked across the platform to it. That was a very useful exercise…” McLoughlin recalls with a smile that combines amusement with a hint of menace.

Most disgruntled passengers were left searching for a lukewarm coffee and hoping for a reasonably short wait for the next train, but when your place of work includes a vast top floor office at the Department for Transport and a seat round the cabinet table, the response is a little more generous.

“Some people recognised me as the secretary of state for transport,” McLoughlin adds. “I won’t say I wrote an angry letter, but a fairly robust phone call took place.”

Given that McLoughlin was his party’s chief whip for seven years before switching to his current role, “fairly robust”, it is safe to say, won’t even come close to describing that phone call.

 Timetables – and occasionally delays – are a familiar part of McLoughlin’s day job. He’s recently admitted that legislation for the controversial HS2 line won’t make it through parliament before the general election, while a contentious report into the future of British aviation will only be published once the election has passed.

But McLoughlin has a knack for making connections in a way that many other ministers might not. He’s a former miner – McLoughlin’s 1983 election poster, which shows him dressed in full mining attire, hangs on his wall – and, he thinks, the only member of the cabinet who didn’t go to university.

As an Eton-heavy chumocracy sits at the heart of government, McLoughlin is a very different type of minister. And he’s proud of it too, handing out a postcard of that election poster – McLoughlin has a drawer-load in his desk – before I leave. Appropriately enough, the man about to become the longest serving transport secretary since Alistair Darling left office in 2006 had already travelled a long way even before he famously served as the aviation minister with a fear of flying during the final years of the Thatcher government.

Luckily, he’s over that particular phobia. Well, nearly. “I’m not as bad as I used to be. It’s just getting on with it and saying, ‘just grow up’. When I first became the aviation minister I did have a fear of flying and my wife would say ‘you drive down the M1 every week and you’re in far more danger than you are in a plane.’”

If only he could make the journey by train. A high speed one to be exact. The HS2 delay is, whatever language the straight-talking McLoughlin settles on, a blow to his record in office. So what went wrong?

“I don’t think there’s much gone wrong,” comes the blunt reply. “If [the bill] is through, fine, but I was just being realistic. Some people were saying our eyes were sort of closed to the process of the hybrid bill, [but] if you look at other hybrid bills they do take some time to go through their process. It was always incredibly ambitious to say that you would get it on the statute book for 2015, and we have made some alterations and changes to it. What’s important is it gets the right amount of scrutiny.”

He doesn’t need to worry: HS2 will now be an issue on the doorstep at the general election, causing a potential headache for MPs from all parties whose constituencies would be affected by a new route, with concerns that the cost of the project will rise with the delay. “Of course, MPs who have got constituencies affected by it will be making their case… I accept that if you’ve got a direct constituency interest that is something that bears on you,” he admits.

“But overall the government has to look at what is in the national interest, and I believe that HS2 is in the national interest. The House of Commons has overall got to look at the overall principle.”

He’s convinced that Labour will remain part of a cross-party consensus, even if shadow chancellor Ed Balls pointedly noted that there would be no blank cheque for the project if he were in the Treasury. McLoughlin shakes his head. “There is no blank cheque. And George Osborne wasn’t going to give me one.” And for any disgruntled Tories looking at their local interests, McLoughlin urges a shift in the message. Stop talking about speed; talk about capacity.

“Look, it’s something I inherited, it was something that was here when I came here, but it isn’t just about speed,” he says about the reasoning behind HS2. “That is the annoying thing: because it’s called High Speed Two everyone thinks it’s just about speed. It isn’t. The West Coast Line is the busiest railway line anywhere in Europe. We’ve seen a doubling of the passenger numbers overall. If you do start to talk to people about capacity, they do get it.”

If that’s true, then McLoughlin will be hoping that the capacity message will allow him – or his successor – to finally solve the problem of Britain’s congested runways. But Howard Davies, who is leading a commission into the future of British aviation, won’t report until after the 2015 election, with action on whatever Davies suggests set to begin in the next parliament. The voting public doesn’t seem to have a say the matter.

“I think they do get a say,” McLoughlin disagrees. “You can’t sort of… in a way I’m criticised because I’m doing too much infrastructure then I’m criticised for not doing enough infrastructure announcements. What is important about infrastructure overall is you do proper work in to it and then you come forward with the conclusions.”

He’s positive that Davies will come up with an answer that will provide consensus, with Gatwick, Heathrow and the Isle of Grain all under consideration. “That’s what I hope Howard can do by the way in which he’s moving forward the commission and which I think he’s doing a fairly good job on. Most people, leave Boris to one side, have accepted they are doing serious work and it was a serious report.”

Actually, let’s not leave Boris to one side. The mayor of London dismissed Davies’ interim report – which didn’t shortlist his idea for a Boris Airport built on the Thames Estuary – as “gloopy and tangled, perplexing and biased.” Davies wasn’t happy, accusing Johnson of “vulgar language”. McLoughlin simply smiles. “I think that with Boris it was typically colourful and you would expect nothing other than that. He’s doing a fantastic job as London mayor and he’s seen a lot of changes which will greatly enhance the transportation in London, not least Crossrail, which has happened basically as a result of his very hard lobbying and pressure on the government.”

But if Johnson wants more, a bit of good behaviour might not be a bad idea. “Of course now Boris has got Crossrail 1 he wants Crossrail 2. That’s fair enough but we’ve also got to make sure we see other areas get a bit of the infrastructure investment as well...”

As for where the new capacity will end up, McLoughin isn’t saying. Heathrow, if it gets the nod, and reports suggest that it is the chancellor’s preferred option, would represent a major u-turn for the Conservative Party, with David Cameron pledging at the last election: “No ifs, no buts, there’ll be no third runway at Heathrow.”

But McLoughlin refuses to “prejudge a report which I’ve not yet seen: I’m not going to start ruling or commenting on individual options, it’s one of the things I said to Howard.” It’s an answer any government minister will be relieved to have in their armory once election campaigning begins: the aviation question, as ever, circles above the skirmishes on the ground.

Back on the roads, however, the transport secretary has no trouble putting on the brakes for a land-based policy: raising the speed limit to 80mph.

His predecessor Philip Hammond was keen, and current transport minister Stephen Hammond recently declared that work had “not stopped” on the proposals. McLoughlin isn’t interested:

“It’s not going to surface before the general election,” he confirms, preferring instead to promote the government’s work on smart motorways and traffic management. “There could be a time when we would look at that but it is not going to be this side of an election. One of the things I am more interested in is making sure motorists who use the motorways can drive at 70mph. There are too many motorways which are too clogged up and a bit too slow as it is at the moment.”

Why not let the train take the strain? More people than ever choose to, but it comes at a price: at the start of 2014, rail prices rose by an average of 2.8%, leaving some season tickets costing an eye-watering £5000 a year. McLoughlin protests that 2014 marks the first year in a decade that the rise hasn’t been above RPI, but he accepts that he would like to do more.

“Some people would like to see prices not go up so fast. I’d certainly like to see prices not go up so fast. But we can’t do the level of investment we’re doing in the railways, new rolling stock, new stations, making sure we’ve got a safe railway and at the same time saying we can’t put up fairs. The two lead on. I’m conscious, I’ll try and keep them down as I can.”

High speed headaches and ticket trouble aside, the Department for Transport seems to do coalition well. At the Home Office and Department for Education, both just a few streets away, fighting regularly break out, but first with Norman Baker, and now Susan Kramer, McLoughlin appears to work comfortably alongside Liberal Democrat ministers. He won’t even carve up their individual policy gains – “I don’t do that; I am not into that” – and instead argues that it doesn’t help to say that “this is my responsibility, this is your responsibility – I think overall we have done a lot of things we can be rightly proud of.”

But those good coalition relations may feel a little strained when McLoughlin’s belief in shared responsibility strays onto a policy which the Liberal Democrats claim is clearly their own.

Listing the “huge amount” that the government has done to help British people in times of austerity, McLoughlin highlights the policy of raising the basic starting point of tax. That would be the policy that David Cameron, during the 2010 televised leaders’ debates, declared was not affordable – and one which was pushed to the fore in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. McLoughlin is not concerned.

“It’s something that the government has done – that’s why I don’t think you can say it’s a Liberal government or a Tory government,” he insists. “The government, which consisted of 305 Conservative members of parliament and 55 Liberal members of parliament, have raised the base rate of tax so that people don’t pay tax below £10000. It’s something I voted for.”

And, he adds, it’s something his party always believed in – even if the policy didn’t quite make the manifesto. “We wanted to raise the threshold, not as much, and we decided to buy that. I remember saying to people on the doorstep ‘I’d like to do it if you can afford to do it.’”

Back on his brief, McLoughlin then reels of the government’s ongoing infrastructure projects, racing down roads like the A453, A11 and A23, talking up the “huge amount” invested in cycling, and boasting about the £38.5bn set to be invested on the railways over the next five years. So if the coalition can achieve so much together, why not do it all over again? “I’ll comment on the election result once I know it,” is McLoughlin’s straight-batted reply.

The Lib-Con feud may be simmering below the surface, the Tory battle with UKIP is already out in the open.

They are now the only two parties promising a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, but McLoughlin is convinced that as polling day approaches UKIP’s support will fade away. “When the general election gets a bit closer, when they start to get a bit more focused about who is going to be prime minister after the 7th of May, as opposed to Nigel Farage, who can go around promising all sorts of things at the moment… People know they are not going to have to make a choice until May next year as to who should carry on governing the country as opposed to a frustration that they might be saying ‘I wish they were doing A, B and C and more’”.

McLoughlin says the prime minister has got his tactics right on Europe – negotiation first, referendum second – but he doesn’t sound as enthused by the idea as some. Less EU-sceptic than many in the cabinet, McLoughlin sounds almost weary when he says “there are certain things about Europe that drive me crackers but they will drive me crackers whether we are inside or outside the European Union.”

And, he seems to suggest, leaving the EU won’t bring in the golden new age that many his party hope it might.

“The idea that somehow we’re going to move the UK… we will still be in the same geographical space in or outside of Europe, Europe will always impact on what we as a country are about, we can’t stop other countries if they wish to have further integration, having that further integration.”

I get the impression that McLoughlin agrees with Lord Ashcroft, the former Tory chairman turned pollster whose recent research found that the public see the EU referendum row as a ‘sideshow’. Given his background, it would be understandable if McLoughlin did think there were more important things to worry about.

He was six when his father died, and was brought up by his mother, a factory worker. He grew up in a home where politics wasn’t up for discussion. “Sort of finding out how to join a political party and then deciding which political party you wanted to join was just part of my growing up really,” he explains, with a school trip to parliament sparking his ambitions. “I said to one of my friends at the time: ‘I’ve decided I want to be a member of parliament.’ He said: ‘If I was you I’d keep that secret.’ He was best man at my wedding…”

But before he could fulfil his ambitions, McLoughlin, who left school at 16, “did a few jobs”, including a stint as a trainee chef and six years for the Coal Board.

He continued to work as miners were striking all around him in 1984, and, when asked about how he looks back on that time, McLoughlin falls uncharacteristically silent. Remembering bricks being thrown through windows and anonymous phonecalls, McLoughlin calls the ’84 strike a “very, very unnecessary industrial dispute in this country”, and describes Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Miners Union, as the man who “was mostly responsible for destroying the coal industry in this county.”

Thirty years on, McLoughlin is, a little patronisingly perhaps, held up as the example of a government made up of people from all backgrounds rather than an Oxbridge-educated political elite. He insists he doesn’t mind, and lists the likes of William Hague, Theresa Villiers and Philip Hammond as fellow state-educated ministers. Not, he quickly adds, that it matters what school a politician went to: “The media tend to sort of concentrate on who went to Eton, it seems to be far more a subject for them than it is for the prime minister…”

But the prime minister does seem to have a lot of Etonians, and old friends, around him. Can McLoughlin see why perceptions of a gilded close-knit circle can be dangerous? Nothing new, he replies, arguing that identical complaints were made about Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

“The prime minister by the very nature of the job will to a degree look to the people that he knows and trusts, and probably knows and trusts before he becomes prime minister, as well as once he becomes prime minister. Just the fast, relentless pace of the job of prime minister makes that happen”, McLoughlin argues, even if he can’t resist adding that he might just know more than some of his Oxbridge educated colleagues.

“My background is not a typical political background but then there’s a number of people you could come across in the House of Commons that have got backgrounds…” He pauses, before reconsidering the answer. “Perhaps not the same as mine. I think I’m probably the only cabinet minister not to have gone to university, but I went to the university of life and probably learnt more as a result of it than some of those people who did go to university… ”

But then, as McLoughlin points out, he’s been a politician now for 28 years. “So perhaps I’m as well-connected or disconnected as the next one… ”

That assessment is painfully accurate, of course, when it comes to the Duffield-Derby connection. Once delays are overcome, Patrick McLoughlin may yet be the transport secretary who sorts out the future of British aviation and finally builds a high speed – just don’t call it that – train line from the north to the south of England, but first of all he needs to make sure his journey to work runs a littler smoother.

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