Tories blame officials for Main Line U-turn: this won’t end well

Patrick McLoughlin points the finger at his officials but his predecessor Justine Greening has questions to answer

Column LAST UPDATED AT 13:52 ON Wed 3 Oct 2012

BLUNDERING Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has been lashing out at all around him but refuses to take the blame for the fiasco over the West Coast Main Line franchise U-turn. Instead, he has picked a dangerous fight with his own civil servants.

On the Today programme this morning, McLoughlin was quick to blame his officials for cocking up the bidding process. Three civil servants have been suspended after "significant technical flaws" were found in the bidding process. But so far neither the secretary himself nor his hapless predecessor Justine Greening have been prepared to shoulder any of the blame

McLoughlin, the son of a miner, was put in place to introduce some common sense into the debate over the proposed third runway for Heathrow. He is privately indicating that he inherited the mess from Greening in the summer reshuffle.

But the former Chief Whip told the House of Commons Transport select committee only a few weeks ago that the bidding process was sound and that claims by Virgin Trains boss Sir Richard Branson that it was flawed were worthless.

Indeed, McLoughlin was preparing to go to court to say as much - only to cave in 24 hours before a High Court hearing into the West Coast bid was set to get under way.

Louise Ellman, the Labour chairman of the Transport Committee, said that she would be recalling McLoughlin and his officials to explain why the evidence they gave to her was so hopelessly inaccurate.

But Greening – posted to the Siberian political wastes of international development by David Cameron at the reshuffle – is almost certain to face more questions.

Not the least of the questions facing Greening, a qualified accountant, will be how on earth the incompetents at the Ministry of Transport managed to waste £40m - and possibly more - of taxpayers’ money, which will have to be paid back to teach of the four bidders for the West Coast Mainline. 

The worrying part of all this for the Conservative Party must be that it is highly unusual for a Secretary of State to dump his civil servants in it – and there are likely to be repercussions. How long before Sir Humphrey takes his revenge? ·