Profile: Grant Shapps, the blandly implausible Cabinet star who is taking on the RMT

24 Jun

When Grant Shapps was 13 he declared: “My name is Grant, I’m from Pinner, and my ambition is to be a Conservative Cabinet minister.”

Simon Johnson, now Chair of the Rugby Football League, heard him say this when they were both in BBYO, the Jewish youth organisation, and remarks: “At the height of Thatcherism in the 1980s that was a very brave thing for him to say – it exposed him to a lot of mickey-taking.”

Shapps is now a Conservative Cabinet minister. As Secretary of State for Transport, he is in the front line of the rail dispute, but well before that he was one of the few people trusted by Downing Street to put the Government’s case on the morning media round.

He continues to be exposed to a lot of mickey-taking, but mingled with that is a note of respect. As one former minister remarked this week to ConHome:

“In a normal Cabinet of quality he would be a minor chord. But in this Cabinet, where mediocrity is laced with incompetence, he’s a bit of a star.”

A serving minister went further:

“I love Grant. Pre-Christmas, when there was the possibility of a lockdown, he was completely pivotal in Cabinet in stopping it. His intervention was crucial.”

Another influential Conservative, who has seen a lot of Shapps over the years, said of him:

“I can’t help but like him, even though I wouldn’t trust him. He’s probably the Government’s best communicator in terms of the Cabinet. He exudes confidence. He’s absolutely right about the rail strike – he’s brilliant. He reminds me a little bit of Jeffrey Archer.”

Shapps is an odd mixture of ambition, boldness, implausibility, realism and professionalism. All front-rank politicians need the self-belief to recover from, or better still shrug off, what may seem to spectators like a knockout blow.

The Prime Minister possesses that quality, and so, in a different register, does Shapps. When Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT, blamed the rail strike on “Old Etonians speaking Latin and Greek”, the jibe did not land on Shapps, educated at Watford Grammar School (by then already a comprehensive), Cassio College and Manchester Polytechnic, and as a teenager more interested in designing computer games and setting up small businesses than in academic work.

Class war cannot work against the classless Shapps. “He’s got much better on the media,” a close observer remarks. “He’s one of the few who talks normally.”

One might say Shapps talks blandly. He is not much given to coining memorable phrases. He makes his case in a reasonable, workaday tone of voice, which offers his opponents no weak point against which to counter-attack.

And because he has been Transport Secretary since July 2019, so for almost three years, he has had time to work out how to continue the modernisation of the railways, which began many years before he came on the scene.

ConHome revealed in November 2020 how Shapps proposed to seize the opportunity offered by the pandemic to give Britain world-class rail.

The vast sums of public money which were needed to keep the trains running through the emergency meant this was a moment of central control, when it became possible, as well as morally right, to sweep away obsolete working practices.

That argument has only become stronger since. As Shapps himself put it in a speech delivered on Thursday of last week:

“These strikes are not only a bid to derail reforms that are critical to the network’s future and designed to inflict damage at the worst possible time, they are also an incredible act of self-harm by the union leadership.

“Make no mistake, unlike the past 25 years, when rising passenger demand, year after year, was taken for granted by the industry, today the railway is in a fight.

“It’s not only competing against other forms of public and private transport, it’s in a battle with Zoom, Teams and remote working. In case the unions haven’t noticed, the world has changed.

“Many commuters, who three years ago had no alternative to taking the train, today have the option of not travelling at all. Wave them goodbye and it will endanger the jobs of thousands of rail workers.

“The last thing the railway should be doing right now is alienating passengers and freight customers with a long and damaging strike.”

The strike is about who wields the central power which has been reestablished over the railway. Lynch and his colleagues in the RMT wish to demonstrate they can bring the network to a halt, and that they will continue to be able to do so.

The union barons used to be a power in the land, a great estate of the realm, because they could shut things down. In the 1970s, neither a Conservative Government, led by Edward Heath, nor a Labour one, led by James Callaghan, could work out how to regain the initiative.

In the 2020s, the Government would have to be extraordinarily incompetent – never, admittedly, a possibility which can be excluded – for things to play out as badly as they did in the 1970s.

Shapps was born in 1968, so remembers the 1970s. He not only announced in the early 1980s that he wished to be a Conservative minister, but at that time showed precocious gifts as a campaigner by getting himself elected National President of the Jewish youth organisation to which he belonged.

In an interview given to The Jewish Chronicle in September 2010, Shapps said:

“I feel totally Jewish; I am totally Jewish. I don’t eat pork, we only buy kosher meat and we don’t mix meat and milk. I like being Jewish and I married a Jewish girl. It’s like a way of life and it’s good to be able to instil some of that sense of being in your kids.

“All of that makes me seem as though I am quite observant but actually the flipside of this is I don’t know if there is a God or not. But one thing I am absolutely certain of is that God wouldn’t care if you were Jewish or Christian or Muslim.”

Although there are many politicians who, while nominally Christian, Muslim or Jewish, don’t know if there is a God, few actually say this.

Shapps is not merely undogmatic on his own behalf: he says God, if He exists, would be undogmatic too.

As a politician, Shapps does not preach doctrine, but is instead keenly interested in practice. “His approach has been generally sensible in a department that isn’t sensible,” as one Tory transport expert put it.

A railway specialist was less complimentary: he feared that Great British Rail, set up by Shapps, will become “another vast government bureaucracy that no one will be able to manage”.

But most observers think Shapps has done quite well at leading a department which is extraordinarily difficult to lead. One may compare and contrast him with Gavin Williamson.

Both men were desperate to get back into the Cabinet, both were astute enough to realise that Johnson was the horse to back in 2019, but Williamson, rewarded with the post of Education Secretary, soon found himself in serious difficulties, which Shapps, rewarded with Transport, has not.

The road to the fulfilment of his boyhood ambition has been a long one, strewn with obstacles, including a car accident in America in which he almost lost his life, and a bout of cancer which could also have proved fatal.

His recreation, when he can find time, is to fly his own Piper plane, made in 1985. His department has to deal with the airline industry, formidable at lobbying though not always good at hiring enough staff or treating them properly.

Shapps, son of a graphic designer, as a young man set up a printing business, but also sought to become an MP. He failed first in 1997, when he stood in North Southwark and Bermondsey, coming a distant third, and next in 2001, when he lost by 1,196 votes in Welwyn Hatfield.

In 2005, he won Welwyn Hatfield by 5.946 votes, and threw his support behind David Cameron, whose nomination papers he signed.

Under Cameron, steady promotion followed: Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2005, shadow Housing Minister in 2007, Minister of State for Housing and Local Government in 2010, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2012.

But the other Chairman was Lord Feldman, who when profiled on ConHome was described as “the more important” of the two, with much closer ties to Cameron.

There are eight references to Feldman in David Cameron’s memoir, For The Record, and only two to Shapps, one of which reads, in its entirety:

“Grant Shapps became Chairman. He was loyal, energetic, and really wanted it.”

Shapps was sometimes known to the Cameroons as von Schnapps, a nickname which perhaps suggests he was not taken with complete seriousness. He made valiant and for a time successful attempts to get Conservative activists bussed to wherever they were most needed.

But after the general election victory of 2015, he was demoted to the post of Minister of State for International Development, no longer attending Cabinet, and in November of that year he stood down because of  grave bullying allegations which had been made about Team2015, the scheme to move young activists around.

There had also been unwelcome publicity about Shapps’s business activities, touched on in this recent piece for ConHome by William Atkinson, including the use of the pseudonym Michael Green and the promotion of a get-rich-quick scheme which seemed unlikely to make anyone better off.

In October 2017, Shapps  said the Conservative Party could not “bury its head in the sand”, and called for the resignation of the Prime Minister, Theresa May.

The plot was a flop and she did not resign until the summer of 2019, when Shapps backed Johnson to succeed her, and became celebrated for the accuracy of the spreadsheets which he prepared for the Johnson campaign.

“He successfully adumbrated the weaknesses and venality of his colleagues,” as one Johnson supporter put it. Shapps had again proved his usefulness, and made sure everyone knew it.

He also makes sure everyone knows that Mick Jones, lead guitarist of The Clash, is his cousin.

Johnson is a fan of The Clash, and especially of Joe Strummer, the band’s lead vocalist. In November 2005, when Johnson was asked by Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs for “record number seven”, he replied:

“Right. Ah, this is fantastic. It is The Clash, “Pressure Drop”, and the great thing about The Clash, of course, was apart from anything else, Joe Strummer was towards the end an avid Telegraph reader and it was the highest moment in my journalistic career when Joe Strummer actually sent me a letter saying how much he’d admired a column I’d written, about hunting funnily enough, and he was a fantastic man, a great hero of mine, a good poet as well as a fantastic rock musician.”

The Prime Minister will be excited to have appointed a Transport Secretary whose cousin performed with Strummer. Here is not the least of Shapps’s implausibilities.

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Lauren Maher: Urgent action is required to save our railways from a spiral of decline

17 May

Lauren Maher is the Communications Manager at the Centre for Policy Studies

Rail has been at the heart of British society since the first railway opened in 1825. However, almost overnight in March 2020, it was plunged into an unprecedented revenue crisis. Without the Treasury footing a £14 billion bill, the entire network would not have survived.

Now, 60 years after the Beeching Cuts and 30 years since the end of the nationalised British Rail, the network faces another defining moment: one which the Government must capitalise on.

As a new paper from the Centre for Policy Studies argues, the most important thing to recognise is that the old way of doing things won’t work anymore. It’s not just that passenger figures haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels; it’s that the way people travel and commute has fundamentally changed.

New figures we reveal today show that the number of passengers commuting every day at peak time – in other words, coming in Monday to Friday, week in, week out – is just 15% of the pre-pandemic total. Most commuting now takes place Tuesday to Thursday; passenger levels are 20% lower on Mondays and 50% lower on Fridays than they were at the start of 2020.

So how can we protect the network’s future while also minimising the burden on taxpayers? At current levels the annual subsidy is still an extraordinary £6 billion, equivalent to an extra penny on income tax.

In a report published today by the CPS, rail expert Tony Lodge highlights the urgent need to radically overhaul the network and save it from a future of decline and underinvestment, propped up by the taxpayer.

While the commuting figures might seem gloomy, rail hasn’t been completely abandoned. Instead, passengers now demand a lot more: they expect to see a world-beating rail offer that is great value for money, offers choice and is supported by technology that can adapt to an evolving operating environment. There has also been a much stronger recovery when it comes to long-distance leisure routes than short-distance commuting – a trend that should be embraced and supported.

The first step the Government must take to modernise the rail network is to overhaul the current ticketing model. It is extraordinary that if I buy a rail ticket I have to navigate 2,700 types of tickets, 1,000 unique names and 600 restrictions.

At the heart of the report is a proposal to create a simpler, fairer and more flexible digital ticketing system. By introducing a cloud ticketing system, the Government would be able to streamline the process for passengers and abolish sky-high peak prices. Crucially, by incentivising a return to rail by making it much easier to purchase a ticket, the Government will be on a much stronger footing to recoup lost revenue and restore the financial sustainability of the network – for example by using loyalty schemes to incentivise people to buy repeatedly.

However, radically reforming rail must go further than introducing a new, digitised ticketing system. As the Government prepares to lay the legislation to establish its new public body, Great British Railways, it must truly commit to using it as a vehicle to drive competition and boost private investment across the network.

As our figures illustrate, open access competition on the East Coast Mainline – a policy championed by the CPS, and endorsed by the Competition and Markets Authority – has resulted in lower fares and greater passenger satisfaction, as well as a stronger rebound in usage rates post-pandemic. It is paramount that the Government seizes the opportunity to use GBR to replicate this success across the country. Doing so will be instrumental to reducing reliance on taxpayer funded subsidies and setting a precedent of boosting private investment across the network. That means having multiple operators competing for customers not just on the West Coast Main Line but the high-speed networks too.

While driving private investment in railways lines is crucial to delivering for passengers, efforts must also be made to boost rail freight. There are obvious economic benefits to being able to transport more goods; however, redirecting road activity to the rail network will also be crucial to reducing the country’s carbon emissions. For a Government whose central pillar of its post-pandemic economic recovery is green growth, this is a win-win. That’s why we suggest an ambitious target of trebling the volume of private sector commodities and raw materials carried via rail freight.

Britain’s railways have been through many landmark reforms over the years. The Government has once in a generation opportunity to capitalise on the changes caused by the pandemic and create a rail model that is fit for the future in line with new working practices. Failing to act urgently and implement the reforms we have set out will not only subject the industry to a future of decline but result in an additional burden on taxpayers to the tune of £6 billion a year, equivalent to an extra penny on income tax. Now is the time to step up and make sure we protect and grow an iconic part of British heritage and our economic fabric.

 

Del Boy Shapps’ videos are vulgar, tasteless, bizarre – and brilliant.

20 Apr

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.

Henry Hill: Sturgeon can’t keep Great British Railways completely out of Scotland

10 Mar

How far can Great British Railways reach in Scotland?

This week the Daily Telegraph reports that Nichola Sturgeon is sidelining Great British Railways, the new national railway brand unveiled by Grant Shapps. Apparently Nationalist ministers, who are preparing to nationalise Scotland’s passenger rail franchise, scorned the plan at a conference in Glasgow.

Yet it is in some ways a strange story. The Department for Transport knows full well that control of ScotRail is devolved; there was never any hope that the SNP would sign up to a pan-GB initiative. This is, after all, the government that only paused efforts to abolish the British Transport Police in Scotland after mass resignations by officers.

But that doesn’t mean that GBR won’t have a presence north of the border. For one thing, it will operate several cross-border services – Shapps should make sure these show GBR’s best face, the better to contrast with Nationalist-run ScotRail. It will also apparently run ticketing and have a visible presence at stations, as this aspect of the old British Rail empire was never broken up.

Unionists clash as Stormont passes controversial Education Bill

The two main unionist parties in Northern Ireland are fighting after they failed to block the passage of new legislation which will oblige the Executive to support integrated schools.

According to the News Letter, both the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists were concerned that it would see such institutions prioritised over existing ‘controlled’ and ‘maintained’ schools.

However, after the Assembly passed the Bill, the UUP refused to back a DUP-led ‘petition of concern’. This is a mechanism, drawn up as part of power sharing, that allows one side at Stormont to veto legislation. Doug Beattie, the UUP leader, said that the bid was an “abuse” of the system.

Baillie says Labour were ‘wrong’ to work with Tories in pro-UK campaign

Scottish Labour might sport a new logo, but they are still having the same rows. This week, Jackie Baillie told their conference that she thinks it was “wrong” for their party to join forces with the Conservatives during the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

The Courier reports her as saying that Labour should be sure to run “distinctive” campaigns in the future, even if they shared with the Tories the ultimate objective of keeping the United Kingdom together.

Naturally the Conservatives have hit back, pointing out that Labour are in coalition with the SNP on several councils and arguing that this is yet more evidence (although Sir Keir Starmer’s ‘radical federalism’ should be sufficient) of their weakness on the Union. By contrast, nine Aberdeen councillors who went into coalition with the Tories were suspended from the party.

This comes as the SNP try to pressure Anas Sarwar into dropping one of his candidates, a former leader of the Orange Order in Scotland. If he does, that will only accelerate the movement of a section of working-class pro-UK voters towards the Conservatives – a shift which already saw the Tories come within a few hundred votes of winning Lanark and Hamilton East in 2017.