Main Line fiasco: did Cameron know before Cabinet reshuffle?
Labour is pressing the PM to 'come clean' on why three Tory ministers were moved from transport brief
LABOUR has demanded David Cameron confirm when he was first told about the fiasco over the West Coast Main Line franchise competition. It has been suggested that he knew before last month's Cabinet reshuffle and moved three Conservatives from the Department for Transport in order to prevent their resignations when news of the mess came out.
The Times suggests that Justine Greening, Transport Secretary during the bidding process for the route, "learnt of a potential flaw in the West Coast bid a week before the Cabinet reshuffle on September 4" that saw her posted to the Siberian political wastes of international development.
Greening "called in auditors from PwC to vet figures compiled by DfT officials", who reported back to her successor, Patrick McLoughlin, on Monday this week that the figures didn't add up. The question being posed is if PM David Cameron was apprised of the possibility of a major snafu occurring in transport before the reshuffle.
All three Tories in the department - Greening and ministers Theresa Villiers and Mike Penning - were moved on from their positions in the September reshuffle. "The news raises the question of whether ministers were reshuffled by David Cameron last month in part to save them from resigning," The Guardian reports.
Labour has quickly jumped on this question. The shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle demanded that "the prime minister should come clean on when he knew, and on any connection with the decision to conduct a wholesale clearout of Tory transport ministers before this fiasco became public".
The Main Line U-turn has been a godsend for the opposition, with Ed Miliband's remarks on Tuesday about an incompetent Government apparently being proven correct almost instantly. The Labour leader returned to the attack yesterday, calling it a "colossal shambles" and saying the Coalition had made a habit of blaming other people for their mistakes.
"They always find someone to blame. This time it is the civil servants," he said. "When the economy went wrong who did they blame?
They blamed the snow, then they blamed the jubilee, then the royal wedding, then they blamed the eurozone."
With three senior DfT staff suspended yesterday, the Financial Times quotes George Muir, an ex-banker and former senior rail executive, criticising the witch hunt of civil servants. It "deflects from the real problem, which was the franchising reform pushed through by Ms Villiers and Ms Greening", he says.
Muir said one of the ministers "should have sense-checked the bid". Villiers, now Northern Ireland secretary, had been a keen supporter of the new rail franchise system that was introduced in January, one of the most controversial parts of which was the longer terms involved in their operation to encourage companies to take more risk.
The Daily Telegraph focuses on what is going to happen to the three other rail franchises which are set to be awarded over the next
12 months - including the Great Western line from London to the West Country and Wales. Like the West Coast Main Line, it is a lucrative route.
At present the bidding processes are on hold while two urgent reviews are being carried out, the Telegraph says. "There were rumours in Whitehall that the team of officials already running the East Coast Main Line was being prepared to step in to run other franchises if the impasse continues."