Did Branson sniff out something rotten in the DfT?
In October 2010 the Conservative Party announced its intention to privatise the country’s military search and rescue arm. The bids were evaluated by a joint MoD/DfT team. Just as with this morning’s abandonment of the West Coast train franchise bidding, then too there were ‘irregularities’ of a nature serious enough to warrant starting again.
In February 2011, the preferred Search & Rescue bidder Soteria voluntarily came forward to tell the government of irregularities in the conduct of its bid team. In a statement at the time, the Coalition admitted that:
“The irregularities included access by one of the consortium members, CHC Helicopter, to commercially sensitive information regarding the joint MoD-DfT [Department for Transport] project team’s evaluations of industry bids and evidence that a former member of that project team had assisted the consortium in its bid preparation, contrary to explicit assurances given to the project team.”
There is probably enough evidence of systemic ‘irregularities’ in the Department for Transport now to warrant a full public enquiry. And as FirstGroup’s shares tumble 15% today so far, there is a sense here at Slogger’s Roost that this bizarre West Coast Trains bidding saga is going to get very dirty indeed. Accusations are already flying thick and fast, starting with Patrick McLoughlin, the recently appointed transport secretary,who talked of “deeply regrettable and completely unacceptable mistakes made by my department in the way it managed the process”. As Mr McLoughlin said this at 1 am, it seems unlikely anyone was around to listen, but already by 9.30am the same day, his harsh use of language has set headless hares running in all directions.
I understand that suspensions have begun in the Minister’s department (the DfT), and this in turn is evoking I-told-you-so’s from people close to events.
“There was always a suspicion on Branson’s part that the award was improper in some way,” an expert in the sector alleges, “which coming from him is somewhat amusing. He’s been on at Cameron to intervene for months now, and it looks like he got his way.”
Did Branson get to Cameron? It looks as though he didn’t physically do so, but in the sense of rattling his cage – yes, he did. Sir Richard’s support for Tory economic plans was enthusiastically trumpeted by George Osbornein the runup to the 2010 general election, but the Virgin boss quickly turned on Camerlot when it became obvious they were engaged in a brazen attempt to reward and enrich their mates.
I suspect what we are witnessing here is the use of ‘flaws’ as the ultimate euphemism for graft….on several levels – including preferred bidder favouritism, Party donations, and the siphoning off of ‘fat’ in the bid for other purposes.
Stay tuned: this is going to develop rapidly into a major scandal.