By Matthew Barrett
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Adding to the sense of Tory discontent with the Government's rail fare increases, Priti Patel MP said on Sky News today that she wants Ministers to "do more" to help the situation:
"Our commuters are paying a lot of money to commute to work and they’re getting a poor deal off the back of this. And actually I’d like to see out Ministers do more, they are doing a great deal a lot already, but do more to put feet to fire when it comes to some of these train operating companies, some of these franchisees on these lines, to deliver a good service for our commuters and bang for buck."
The Observer has news of the next possible Coalition split: rail fares. It's not Lib Dems and Tory frontbenchers against the Tory backbenches, nor is it Tory front and backbenches against Lib Dems: it's Lib Dems and Tory backbenchers against the Government.
The newspaper reports that MPs from both parties will lobby George Osborne and the Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, to cap fare increases at 1% above inflation, instead of the 3%+ increase that many fares will rise by in January. The first 1% goes to the rail companies, but the 2% (or more in some cases) of the 3% increase will go to the Treasury (effectively imposing a tax), hence George Osborne is said to be unwilling to u-turn on the steep increase. Justine Greening, on the other hand, is said to be sympathetic to the MPs. In last year's Autumn Statement, Tory MPs were able to secure the 1% they now seek again.
It is worth noting the MPs who are quoted complaining about the increase. Firstly, one representing a stereotypically prosperous Tory constituency, and one with plenty of commuters:
"One Kent MP – Sir John Stanley, the member for Tonbridge and Malling – accused ministers of "exploiting commuters" and using rail fares as "a disguised form of taxation"."
Another of the three Tory MPs quoted is from a more working class constituency, albeit still in the South East and with plenty of commuters:
"Tracey Crouch, the Tory MP for Chatham and Aylesford in Kent, said: "A lot of Tory MPs will be seeking meetings with ministers as soon as we return. Household living standards are already squeezed and people who have to commute are feeling very aggrieved.""
And the other Tory MP quoted represents an Essex Man-style swing seat:
"The Conservative MP for Harlow in Essex, Robert Halfon, said: "I have already written to Justine Greening. It is a simple cost-of-living issue. Many people in my constituency are on below-average earnings and commute into London, and they cannot afford these rises.""
The Observer says the Deputy Chairman, Michael Fallon, has also complained about the large increase, and that Philip Davies, who represents Shipley near Bradford, says it would be damaging for the economy:
"It is absolutely essential that this decision is changed. Government should be on the side of the people – not hitting them where it hurts most. It is very difficult to see how we can get out of a recession when these kinds of increases leave people with even less money to spend."
That range of MPs is interesting, because it sends a signal to the Government about the specific detrimental effects of such a fare increase: it would alienate core supporters (Tonbridge and Sevenoaks, Fallon's seat), middle and working class voters (Chatham), swing voters (Harlow), and northern voters (Davies).
Importantly for Tory rebels, Lib Dems are also seeking a u-turn, although neither the Observer nor a similar report in the Sunday Telegraph is able to provide detail of a yellow rebellion. A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times (pdf) found that 87% of people, including 83% of Tory voters, felt that the planned increases are "unfair".* Osborne, also the Party's chief strategist, knows he cannot afford to alienate as many voters as a fare increase would seem likely to.
* A small plurality – 39% to 32% favoured an increase in rail fares to an increase in the basic rate of tax from 20p to 21p.