Even when the exit poll was announced immediately after 10pm as the polls closed, the projected result was met with disbelief by politicians with Paddy Ashdown famously threatening to eat his hat and Alistair Campbell his kilt in the event of the poll being accurate.
In reality, just as in 2010 when the exit poll was remarkably prescient in predicting the hung parliament, the poll was virtually correct. It understated the number of Conservatives seats — thus forecasting a small minority rather than the small majority the party achieved — but correctly forecast the massive losses incurred by the Liberal Democrats, the massive success achieved by the Scottish National Party and the failure both the Greens and UKIP to translate significant votes nationwide into an electoral breakthrough.
The result of the General Election was, thus, to see the first majority Conservative government for 18 years and so, on 28 May, HM The Queen presented the first Queen’s Speech for almost two decades to outline a solely Conservative plan for Britain.
In terms of transport there was only one key measure announced and that was the reaffirmation of the High Speed 2 scheme when the Queen announced ‘My government will continue to legislate for high-speed rail links between the different parts of the country.’ It will be interesting to see how far this progresses given the considerable opposition amongst Tory MPs whose constituencies are potentially affected by the route’s construction. It will also be interesting to see how far the project is take northwards with press reports during the build-up to the Queen’s Speech that there were considerable doubts about the case for extending high-speed rail travel north of Leeds and Manchester. Whilst the politicians have suggested that nothing has as yet been determined, the threat to the link through to Scotland seems real.
Another proposal might have considerable implications for the future of railway planning in the north of England. The Queen announced ‘Legislation will be introduced to provide for the devolution of powers to cities with elected metro mayors, helping to build a northern powerhouse.’ The idea of greater devolution to the major cities of the north of England — most notably Manchester and Leeds — looks increasingly likely. The creation of structures in these cities will have potentially significant implications for public transport. Just as Transport for London has increased its role in managing and funding major schemes so equivalent bodies for Manchester and Leeds will see considerable powers transferred. With major projects such as Thameslink and Crossrail, the per capita investment in public transport in London and south-east England far outweighs the equivalent in the Midlands and North of England. Should the concept of the ‘powerhouse’ develop, it’s likely that expenditure on transport projects in these centres will increase with a number of major projects already mooted.
Further changes to the structure of the railway industry are also likely in both Scotland and Wales as a result of the devolution process. The Scottish government already has considerable powers over the industry whilst the Welsh administration was told in late 2014 that responsibility for the awarding of the new Welsh franchise, currently held by Arriva Trains Wales, would be devolved. There is also pressure for the Welsh administration to take over responsibility for track and infrastructure to create a unified industry serving the country.
The budget for investment will, however, be looked at in more detail during a period when the Government has stressed its desire to ensure the eradication of the budget deficit within the next three to five years. Whilst the Queen’s Speech may have highlighted the legislative programme, much more significant may well be George Osborne’s second budget of the year, scheduled for late July. In it, he will seek to outline the cuts required to achieve the savings required. In 2010, when the coalition government brought in the first round of austerity, Network Rail was insulated as the company was deemed to be ‘off the books’; this time, Network Rail’s finances are regarded as part of the overall budget and with its forecasted total debt to rise to £50 billion by 2020 it’s unlikely it will escape scrutiny. With a government keen to raise funds through asset sales, press reports suggest that NR’s telecommunications network and managed stations may well be heading for the private sector. Britain’s share of Eurostar is already being sold to the private sector for £757 million, with the announcement made in March 2015.
The last sole Conservative government was that elected in 1992 under John Major with an equally small majority to that achieved in 2015. Despite the small majority, Major was able to push through the Privatisation of the railways, despite considerable opposition, resulting in the fragmented structure of the industry that has persisted to this day. The fact that he was able to get it through parliament at a time when the opposition was much more united suggests that, despite the relatively small majority in numerical terms, the government will find it easier this time perhaps as the opposition is much more fragmented and so much less easy to form a united opposition to contentious policies.
One thing that is certain, however, is that there won’t be any reversal of the franchising policy for the operators; whilst a majority of the population seems to favour some return to a more accountable form of railway ownership, this is unlikely to happen under this administration.