Unfortunately for him, Grant Shapps is indelibly associated for me with an ex-girlfriend. Being a resident of Welwyn Garden City, and of stoutly left-wing views, she had conceived a burning distaste for her local MP. Personally, since Shapps and I share the honour of having grown up in Croxley Green, I have more time for the man – and especially so that he is now becoming a minor internet sensation.
Over the last few months, Shapps, the Transport Secretary, has begun to twin announcements from his department with a series of slightly bizarre YouTube video. One features him conversing with Michael Portillo on a station platform. Another has him meeting a Tik-Tok personality whilst discussing railway announcements. A third has him with Quentin Wilson, long ago of Top Gear, engaged in a Wild-West style shoot out with electric vehicle chargers in a Tesco car park.
Whilst these have a faint air of Alan Partridge at his most desperate, Shapps’ most recent entry tops all his previous efforts. Pictured in front of a green screen, he announces the Government’s new Great British Rail Sale through a series of costume changes. A warm coat for Edinburgh; shades and a crab for Cornwall; a rucksack for the Lake District. This culminates with the technology packing up, and Shapps informing us from a station platform that it is time to stop living virtually – and go and explore the UK by rail.
Again, I’m not sure if the minute-long sequence is a conscious callback to Wayne’s World or not. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon find Shapps in a car with Mike Myers, belting out ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ whilst advertising a campaign to fill-in potholes. Certainly, this is a memorable way to get across the message that various ticket prices have been cut for the next two months. But before he starts mimicking Mr Mercury, there is a serious point to address about Shapps’ recent performances.
They are, frankly, vulgar. The production values are consciously cheesy, and Shapps’ delivery has the clipped and uncomfortable edge of a Dad trying to get down-wid-da-kidz. It is hardly becoming of a Cabinet minister to be making a goon of themselves on YouTube in order to flog cheap railway tickets. Would Peel, Disraeli, or Salisbury have been caught pratting around playing cowboys and Indians in a supermarket car park?
Well, perhaps those Victorian titans wouldn’t have. But Shapps deserves more credit than derision for his online announcements. If Enoch Powell could be caught on a pogo stick as Minister for Health, and Edward Heath could be found on a skateboard as Leader of the Opposition, then a Tory statesman of Shapps’ stature can be allowed to hold a crab on the internet. Take it as the 21st century version of the eye-catching photo op.
Shapps is a businessman by trade. A few of his efforts have received their fair share of gentle mockery, including his use of the pseudonym Michael Green to flog customers a “get-rich-quick scheme” involving eBooks. In that sense, he reminds me of another great business personality with a flair for self-promotion – a certain Derek Trotter. If it is the Alan Partridge side of Shapps the comes through in the videos, all the better – a minister looking a prat is much more watchable than a minister being dull.
But like Del Boy, Shapps’ ministerial career has had its ups and downs, with resignations, demotions, and an occasionally turbulent time as the Party’s co-chair. Yet since becoming Transport Secretary in 2019, Shapps has been one of the Government’s quiet star performers. He has presided over the effective nationalisation of the Northern Trains franchise, the creation of Great British Railways, and the launch of the Integrated Rail Plan for northern England – and Covid travel restrictions.
In short, this amateur pilot has been a steady captain of his department through turbulent times without receiving too much attention. Even if it does involve him looking a bit silly online, it is appropriate that these videos have given him a brief and entertaining chance to enjoy the spotlight. As Peckham’s finest liked to put it – he who dares, wins.
And so I now fully expect Shapps to swap a train for a yellow Reliant Robin in his next video.