First meeting with new Secretary of State – May 14 2014
So, there I was, yesterday, on Taunton station, mulling over that I now had to ‘start again’ getting to know a new, and (to me) completely unknown Secretary of State for Transport - when my mobile buzzed.
“Hi Nigel, good morning to you, it’s Ben at the DfT. I know it’s short notice, but we wondered if you had a few minutes to spare this afternoon to meet Philip Hammond, the new Secretary of State?”
Taunton. 1132. B*gger.
The appointment was set for 1400, so God Bless First Great Western and all who work in her, for whisking me back to Paddington, spot-on time, shortly after 1330. By the way, FGW, once famous for propping up the performance tables with some truly awful results is now sailing serenely on top like a swan…all grace above the waterline but damned hard work behind the scenes. Overall punctuality figures I saw that day showed an average of 97.8% so well done to Managing Director Mark Hopwood and his team for some excellent work. He has plenty of incentive though, apart from the satisfaction of just ‘getting it right’….the last thing you’d want is his gaffer Mary Grant and her boss Moir Lockhead ‘on your case!’
Anyway…back to the new Transport Secretary. A dash for a taxi and a mercifully smooth trip to Marsham Street saw me joining a small group of other specialist transport journos in the DfT reception at 1358. Phew.
We were duly ushered up to a hastily convened coffee and cakes gathering in one of the presentation rooms where chairs stacked against the wall proved the sudden decision by the new SoS.
Hammond suddenly swept in and I watched him carefully – the old adage that you only get one chance to make a first impression is very true indeed. His intention to move informally round the room to talk personally and individually to us sank without trace as the national newspaper boys all clustered round to earwig his first conversation with the Daily Mail’s Ray Massey - and so the plan was changed. Hammond’s press minder announced that he’d say a few words and then we could ask questions.
And so he stood and made some general remarks with ease and confidence. Hammond is a man who, a Google search will tell you, has a personal fortune of between £5m and £9m so the 5% Cabinet pay cut won’t bother him much. If he was in any way apprehensive about facing the transport specialist writers less than 24 hours after being appointed he didn’t show it. He’s early 50s, immaculately groomed, very well-spoken, assured and clearly at ease. A word I’d heard used to describe Hammond is ‘dry’ - but I didn’t get that. Rather he has that unruffled, unpeturbed, self-confident public school air of polite, businesslike confidence which in lower achievers from the same social strata can turn into that irritating patronising drawl. Not so here. It was all self-assured manners and charm. We’ll see about substance in due course.
His opening words were of considerable interest, however, and the messages for all were crystal clear. Here’s what he said:
“We have to learn to do things differently because the era of easy public money is over. We are going to have to sweat the assets much better than we have in the past and extract as much value for the user and taxpayer as we possibly can.
“As for new investment, being realistic, we need new and innovative ways of funding things involving other sources of money, as public money is going to be very tight.
“This is my first day in post and my only experience of transport is as seen through the jaundiced eyes of a former shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I want to play my part to help deliver economic growth and help the climate change challenge.”
The newspaper chaps were very keen to talk about road user charging and whilst he was pretty non-committal on cars he made clear he will indeed be looking at lorry road user charging.
He was very pro high speed rail and made a point of saying that Prime Minister David Cameron was personally very supportive.
“High Speed Rail is not some kind of bolt-on – it is a key element of our policy and David Cameron himself mentioned it yesterday when he appointed me.”
Hammond said that whilst it would be difficult to achieve transport spending cuts in capital spend in the current year because work was contracted and under way, the DfT itself operationally would have to bear its share of spending reductions.
And with that, his minders swept him out again.
My conclusions and feelings were, as far as it’s possible to form views on such a whirlwind meeting, generally positive, but with reservations, laced with intrigued anticipation for the future.
You have to admire the brio and assertive approach of a brand new SoS who invites the specialist media into his department for an unplanned chat on an entirely new brief within 24 hours of his appointment in Downing Street and before he had even been to Buckingham Palace to ‘kiss hands’ and collect his seals of office from HM the Queen. He had had time to do little more than meet his staff, hang up his coat and browse the urgent papers on his desk before coming to meet us. It was his very first day in office. That in itself is impressive and says something about the man…something I rather like, actually.
He was calm, cool, assured and engaging. But there was more than that. The very fact of his arrival, in place of long-time Shadow Theresa Villiers is significant, I suspect, in ways we don’t yet appreciate, I suspect. He is, as a former Treasury Chief Secretary clearly very experienced and, beneath the urbane exterior, pretty hard-bitten when it comes to getting the job done. Network Rail in particular should pay heed to this because I sense steel beneath the silk and as the biggest financial problem in the railway NR is, as we know, firmly in the Government’s sights for financial and governance reform.
Villiers did make it into the DfT team, albeit in a more junior role as Minister of State – and maybe her displacement from the top job was not merely a by-product of having to slot Lib Dem David Laws alongside new Chancellor George Osborne at the Treasury. Maybe it was a Conservative decision to slot a highly-experienced former Treasury shadow into a role where a tough job needs to be done? By bringing in a new face unencumbered by any kind of baggage or existing industry relationships, Cameron has seized the advantage from the ‘off’ in an area where we know the Conservatives want to make an impact: Network Rail.
We shall see. Keep up to date with RAIL!
One last thing. I, along with many others in the industry, was extremely disappointed and personally saddened to see the excellent Stephen Hammond left out of the ministerial ranks at the DfT – despite several years of truly excellent, diligent, shadowing. Hammond spent several hard-working years really engaging with the rail industry and had earned the respect of many people, not least me. He’s a likeable chap whose experience now seems unlikely to be used in an area where he had built up a solid body of knowledge, understanding and insight. Maybe he could join the currently pathetic Transport Select Committee and give it some desperately needed specialist knowledge and gravitas?
Whatever, I hope the railway hasn’t seen the last of Stephen Hammond. Surely he wasn’t left out because some troll somewhere felt that we couldn’t have two Hammonds in one department….? He deserved better and I think his omission is a mistake by whoever advised David Cameron.
Meanwhile, it’s on with the brave new world of coalition transport policy. It's going to be very, very tough.