When, at the Transport Times Great Transport Debate earlier this year, Patrick McLoughlin said he hoped to return as Transport Secretary after the general election, few thought it likely.
Even if the Conservatives were returned to power, it looked a safe bet that he would be moved in the obligatory reshuffle. But, confounding conventional wisdom, Mr McLoughlin is indeed back, a decision widely welcomed given that the DfT had had seven secretaries of state in the previous seven years.
On 1 June, he celebrated 1,000 days in the post, making him the seventh longest-serving transport
secretary since the 1950s.
Mr McLoughlin underwent something of a baptism of fire when, within a few weeks of taking office, flaws in the West Coast Main Line franchise competition came to light after First had been named as preferred bidder. He acted decisively, cancelling the competition, putting in place two inquires and taking steps to extend the contract of the incumbent operator, Virgin Trains.
Since then he has reorganised the department to make it clear where responsibility for franchising lies, and replaced lost expertise in the department, under a new director of franchising, Peter Wilkinson.
A new timetable for franchise competitions has been set up, existing contracts have been extended where necessary, and stability has been restored.
Mr McLoughlin has an enthusiasm for the transport brief, perhaps because, as he often mentions, he began his ministerial career in 1989 at transport under then Transport Secretary Cecil Parkinson. He is fond of recalling his surprise to find shipping among his responsibilities, despite representing a constituency, Derbyshire Dales, which is about as far from the sea as is possible.
He has proved a safe pair of hands at the department, working effectively with colleagues both from his
own party and Liberal Democrats Norman Baker and Susan Kramer.
He has made the case for HS2 with enthusiasm, and steered the hybrid bill for the project successfully
through its second reading debate in the House of Commons.
He presided over what many would argue was the long-overdue reform of highways, creating an arm's length company Highways England with a five-year investment plan, intended to give the industry more certainty over funding and, by allowing sensible planning, to help the DfT to get better value for money from highways spending.
Despite reports of reservations within the DfT over George Osborne's plan to give powers to regulate bus services and fares to Greater Manchester as part of its proposed devolution package, Mr McLoughlin himself seems relaxed about this and has spoken of an ultimate "mosaic" of different regimes in different places as appropriate.
In less than three months Patrick McLoughlin will overtake Brian Mawhinney (1992-95) to become the sixth longest serving transport secretary of recent times. He follows John Peyton in the 1970s (who for most of his tenure was minister for transport industries within the Department of the Environment, which subsumed Transport for a time), Harold Watkinson (1995-59), Alistair Darling (2002-06) and John Prescott (1997-2001). It is perhaps somewhat premature to speculate about the possibility of him overhauling Ernest Marples, who served for five years from 1959; but the return of a Transport Secretary who is knowledgeable about and comfortable with the brief is no bad thing.
Reference: Transport Times, June 2015 Issue
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