Ruth Kelly’s plan outed


Rt Hon Ruth Kelly MP, Secretary of State for Transport. Photo DfT

The unexpected announcement that Ruth Kelly was planning to leave Gordon Brown’s cabinet ‘at the next reshuffle’ – and its peculiar timing at 3 am on Wednesday morning – has left left UK political analysts reeling. But here at BTWT we are more concerned about the impact of Ruth’s departure on British transport policy than on its impact on the survival of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister.

Kelly is one of the brainiest members of the cabinet, she has even been tipped by some to be a future prime minister. She sat her ‘O’ levels a year early, and then won a scholarship to Westminster School to take her A-levels. She went on to Queen’s College, Oxford where she read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. She graduated in 1989, and then gaining an MSc in Economics in 1992 at the London School of Economics.

Her political career has been fast track. She joined the Labour Party in 1990. At the time she was an economics writer for The Guardian, and then in 1994 moved to the Bank of England. In the 1997 general election, Kelly gained the seat of Bolton West from the Conservatives. She gained her place in parliament as Tony Blair became Prime Minister with Labour’s landslide election victory. She served on the Treasury Select Committee. In 1998 she was appointed as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, at the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Kelly was a member of a commission set up by the Institute for Public Policy Research into the Private Finance Initiative.

After Labour won the 2001 general election, Kelly was appointed as Economic Secretary to the Treasury. Her role focused on competition policy and small businesses. After a year, she was promoted to be Financial Secretary to the Treasury, giving her responsibility for regulation of the financial services industry. In both positions her principal task was in the thorough revision of the Financial Services regulation system. Kelly was given the task of dealing with Equitable Life after the life insurance company ran out of money to meet its obligations to people who had bought it pension products.

She was promoted to be Minister for the Cabinet Office on 9 September 2004, replacing Douglas Alexander. Kelly guided the Civil Contingencies Bill through its final stages in Parliament. In the reshuffle following the resignation of David Blunkett on 15 December 2004, Kelly entered the Cabinet (also becoming a member of the Privy Council) with the position of Secretary of State for Education and Skills. She became the youngest woman ever to sit in the Cabinet.

After the English local elections in May 2006, Kelly was appointed Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. She was also given the post of Minister for Women and Equality. Kelly was appointed Secretary of State for Transport in Gordon Brown’s new cabinet on 27 June 2007.

Sadly in her last cabinet role Kelly’s strategic vision did not match her brainpower. Instead she proved herself ‘a safe pair of hands’ supporting the UK Treasury policy of clamping down on railway spending. She never quite ‘linked the dots’ as to rising fuel prices, the government’s green agenda, shifts to other modes of transport taking place in other European countries, and the renaissance in modern railway transport going on in the rest of the world. It was during Kelly’s watch at the DfT, that some bright civil servant coined the phrase ‘modally agnostic’ with respect to the Department for Transport’s transport policy.

Kelly’s speech at the Transport Times conference ‘Action on Climate Change: A Role for Transport’ makes depressing reading. It is available in full on the DtF website. Here are some extracts.

Considering the long-term growth in road transport predicted by Sir Rod Eddington, we will need to achieve an almost complete decarbonisation of cars by 2050.

Eddington was commissioned to write a ‘steady as she goes’ report. Predictably, it said nothing about the modal shifts from car to public transport going on in the rest of the civilised world, nor did Kelly’s speech.

Restricting air travel, for example, from Heathrow is going to have no impact on climate change if passengers just switch their flights to Paris, Frankfurt or Schiphol.

Eddington’s analysis ignores the flight away from internal air transport in France in favour the HGV. Eddington – as an air industry insider – should have known about this, but he ignored it in his report and instead undermined the case for HS2 – a brand new high speed North-South railway up the spine of the UK. Kelly was also a steadfast supporter of the highly controversial third runway at Heathrow.

In last year’s Rail White Paper we rightly prioritised investment for the next five years in a massive increase in carrying capacity so that our railways can continue to meet the huge demand that has made our railway the fastest growing in Europe. But looking beyond that I can see great potential for a rolling programme of electrification.

So while the rest of the Europe constructs a third generation railway network, the DfT will only encourages Train Operating Companies to buy more railway carriages, and then 5 years later (when the Tories are firmly in control of Downing Street) there will be ‘great potential’ for some electrification. Hardly stirring stuff!

Who will replace Kelly? Tom Harris the Undersecretary of State responsible for rail at the DfT would be a natural choice. But our crystal ball says Gordon will choose another woman. Will it be Caroline Flint, who has worked at Department for Trade and Industry, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Department of Health, Department for work and Pensions and the Department for Housing and Planning, or Dawn Primarolo, an experienced Treasury hand? Watch this space. Gordon is unlikely to appoint anyone who might rock the boat. So don’t reckon on any U-turns regarding transport policy. And Ruth? Expect to see her back one day in a senior post – running the Home Office perhaps – in a future David Miliband government.

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