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By Peter Hoskin
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The
word “shambles”, particularly with the prefix “omni-” in front of it, has been
overused recently. But it’s the word that most readily applies to today’s
news
that the government is to scrap the deal awarding the West
Coast Main Line franchise to Firstgroup. And the reason why? In the words of
Patrick McLoughlin, “completely unacceptable mistakes made
by my department in the way it managed the process”.
Apparently, as the Department for Transport press release puts it, “These flaws stem from the way the level of risk in the bids was
evaluated.”

The
fiscal cost to the DfT is, as these things go, quite small: £40 million will
have to be reimbursed to the various parties in the deal. But the embarrassment
is huge. It was only a few weeks ago that the then Transport Secretary, Justine
Greening, was deflecting
Richard Branson’s concerns
with the words, “I suspect that, had [Virgin]
won the bid, they would have been perfectly happy with the process.” Yet now
the Virgin Boss has been broadly vindicated. Thanks to errors committed along
Whitehall, Virgin is now back in with a shot at the contract. FirstGroup’s
shares
have plummeted in price.


What
makes this story even more piquant is the fact that ministerial-departmental
relations are currently
up for debate
. Where does responsibility lie? Who should be checking what? How
can officials be made accountable for their failures? We do not have all the
details in this case, but we have been told that DfT staff will be suspended
while an investigation takes place. The department’s permanent secretary even
contributed a quote to the official press release. “I am determined to identify exactly what went wrong and why,” he says, “and
to put these things right so that we never find ourselves in this position
again.”

As well as an investigation into the departmental
screw-ups, there will also be a review into the wider rail franchise programme.
And so, much is cast into doubt again — not what the Government will have
wanted after an uncertain few months. And that goes doubly so for those Tory ministers who
will soon be catching the train to Birmingham.

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