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Thu, 9 April 2020

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Huw Merriman MP: 'No10 should rein in attacks on BBC – it's not going to end well'

Huw Merriman MP: 'No10 should rein in attacks on BBC – it's not going to end well'
13 min read

A self-described ‘independent thinker’, Huw Merriman believes he is not cut out for government. The new chair of the Transport Committee talks to Georgina Bailey about decarbonisation, levelling up fairly, and sticking his neck out


Huw Merriman has been called a fair few names over the last 12 months. “Guido Fawkes described me as ‘Tory wet Huw Merriman’. I often get called a remainer. Or a remoaner. I got called the Chancellor’s Tea Lady – I thought that was a bit sexist.”

However, when you ask the former PPS to Philip Hammond to describe where he’d put himself on the ideological spectrum, he is reluctant to apply a label: “People pigeonhole in this place… I don’t think I can be pigeonholed.”

Brought up in a “socialist household” by two trade unionist parents, Merriman accidentally “got outed” as a Tory when working for George Walden, the then-Conservative MP for Buckingham, in his gap year.

“It was a bit like something out of the Full Monty,” he laughs, recalling how he would put on a suit and leave the house without telling his parents where he was off to. The ruse was rumbled when Merriman was running late to meet his employer for an evening event, and Walden knocked on the door to pick him up instead of waiting outside as planned. “That was made even worse because he was also schools minister, and Mum was a school union rep… Mum and I just don’t tend to discuss politics. It’s easier that way.”

But his mum doesn’t have to worry about Merriman, now representing Bexhill and Battle, following in his former boss’s footsteps and joining the DfE; “I probably wouldn’t make a very good government minister, or even be asked,” Merriman believes. “I’ve never really thought I’m the type of person that would do well in government because I like coming up with ideas. I like challenging existing ideas. I like policy recommendations and reform. I like to be thoughtful,” he explains. “And I don’t think I necessarily have that discipline.”

Huw Merriman MP, photographed by Baldo SciaccaPerhaps conveniently, Merriman doesn’t ascribe to the view that becoming a minister is necessarily a mark of success in an MP’s career. “You’ve become a Member of Parliament, you’re representing your constituents with some of the biggest challenges that they personally would have… if you think about it, what better career can there be!”

“But if there is to be something on top of that,” he reflects, “then there needs to be respect and a route for someone to be a legislator, senior legislator. Someone that actually makes Parliament hold government and industry to account. That should be a career just as successful as somebody that goes around carrying a red folder because they’re a minister in government.”

Merriman chose a red bus – or at least a laminated cut out of one – as his tool of choice in climbing the Parliamentary ladder. His much talked about campaign flyer saw him successfully elected as the new chair of the Transport Select Committee last month; the first Conservative or male to hold the post in over 20 years.

He speaks of his colleagues on the previous committee with tremendous fondness. “I think we’ve always been a really strong committee in terms of cross-party working. I think there is a lot of mutual respect. So yeah, I made sure that I had the nominations signed by every single member of the committee, which I’m really proud of, because normally, there’s somebody that you’ve upset,” he says. “We take our job seriously on that committee.”

Does he think that transport issues are less easy than others to define along party lines then? “It’s an area where we all struggle, no matter where our constituents are – we all want more,” he explains. “You tend to hear that line ‘successive governments have not done or have failed to invest’. And I think that’s because you can look at it on a cross party basis. Also because the big transport trunk projects tend to take a long time to deliver!”

“This is a committee that’s always been very technical. We’ve had three very strong chairs that have focused more on the technical and what’s possible, rather than sort of the party-political squabbling. That’s something I very much hope to continue.”

One ongoing priority for the new chair is accessibility – an area the last iteration of committee focused on heavily. Currently train operators require passengers to give 24 hours’ notice of accessibility requirements. But Merriman believes the practice is unacceptable in 2020. “You should be able to wake up in the morning, decide you’re going to use public transport and be able to use it.”

While it “absolutely makes sense” for trains to have a second crew member on board for accessibility purposes, Merriman is “also a firm believer that the unions need to think about modernisation in terms of what’s best for the passenger”. 

“If you’ve got a second crew member who’s just wedded to the carriage to open the doors, then they’re not able to go up and down the train, making sure people are okay,” he explains. “It’s absolutely right that the train operators invest in technology and they innovate. But that also means that members of staff need to embrace that concept as well, if it’s good for the passenger.”

Merriman, with his strong trade unionist heritage, wants to maintain a constructive relationship with the transport unions going forward. “You have to hand it to the rail unions, they’ve done a tremendous job,” he laughs. “If you’re a member of that union you’d say that they’ve looked after you well.”

“In the short term, you might see a little envy from the south-east if the north gets that big amount of money spent on it, and the south-east doesn’t.”

Merriman is well placed to understand the frustrations of passengers, whether that be with unions, Network Rail, the train operators, or their collective impact on fare increases and cancellations – he commutes into Westminster most days from his Bexhill and Battle constituency. In fact, the morning we meet, his train has been delayed. It was the experiences of his constituents that first drove him to the Transport Committee when he joined Parliament in 2015.

“I live sort of near enough to London but too far away. So it takes two hours to go by train from Bexhill to London, even though it’s East Sussex. Whereas doing the same distance to Milton Keynes, which is equidistant, takes just over half an hour...

“If we had better transport links to London, then all of a sudden we’d be able to regenerate,” he explains. “Transport is the thing that unlocks everything in my county.”

He is not alone in this sentiment. Infrastructure potential is something that many of his new Conservatives colleagues, particularly from the Midlands and the North, have raised too. Is he concerned that as the Government attempts to hold on to its new Red Wall seats, it will result in investment being pulled out of its traditional strongholds? “I think that is going to be one of the tensions of this Parliament,” he says.

While he is clear he thinks the levelling up agenda is “a good thing”, Merriman wants the Government to demonstrate its “not just levelling up in the parts that were not previously reached”.

“If you look at the south-east, for example, it’s the second largest contributor towards the UK in terms of economic power, and yet if you look at things like local roads, it has gotten the lowest subsidy...” Merriman explains. “I think it’s a question of, if you want the south-east to continue to invest for the rest of the UK, then it actually needs some infrastructure money itself as well.

“In the short term, you might see a little envy from the south-east if the north gets that big amount of money spent on it, and the south-east doesn’t.”

On another shared focus across Parliament, Merriman is well aware that transport remains the “stubborn sector” when it comes to decarbonisation, accounting for around a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. “We do have a difficulty,” he acknowledges. “And if you look at the car usage, it’s gone up by third in about 20 years. So we’re going to have to tackle this.”

Merriman wants the new Transport Committee to include consideration of net zero implications in Huw Merriman MP, by Baldo Sciaccaevery report it produces. He is also an enthusiastic proponent of seed money and support for green innovation – particularly hydrogen and greening the National Grid. “We’ve got to let our pioneers deliver the solutions for us. I believe in economic growth as the way through our climate change difficulties.”

Investment in charging infrastructure, battery research, and challenging consumer habits are high on Merriman’s list of priorities for delivering net zero. “Our committee should really hold the Government’s feet to the fire when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint of transport,” he says. “But we also have to ask ourselves questions”.

Can he square the circle therefore between supporting Heathrow expansion and wanting transport to decarbonise? “I don’t see it as a contradiction as far as that’s concerned,” he says. He has faith the planned expansion will go ahead, despite the PM’s previous qualms. “Our aviation capacity will run out by 2030 if we don’t do something about it. That’s wrong.”

“If you look at transport as a whole, we know there are certain sectors that are going to have to compensate for others where the technology is just not going to be there,” he explains. “While there’s more that the [airline] industry can actually do and there will be innovation, we still have to recognize that it’s going to be the most challenging sector. So it’s going to need the other sectors [to offset].”

Building up the shipping sector is one proposal but Merriman – a fruit and vegetable grower and chair of the APPG on Bees and Pollinators – thinks a change in our consumption habits must play a large role. “Do I really need to bring vegetables over from Africa with a huge carbon footprint, and from a continent that can’t feed itself too, so I have the luxury of green beans in winter – when I can grow my own and freeze? So I hope over time that habits will shift which will actually be better for us.”

“There seems to be a sort of nasty streak behind some of these briefings. I’m not sure why we need to be quite so divisive in the tone and language that we’re using. I just don’t think it’s going to end well.”

Merriman isn’t scared of sticking his head above the parapet – even if it means incurring tricky conversations with the whips. Last year, he made headlines after speaking at a People’s Vote rally following April’s indicative votes in Parliament, despite being Philip Hammond’s PPS at the time. Although, as he points out, few reports mentioned that he told the rally he would campaign to leave in a second referendum – or that he’d also voted to keep no-deal on the table (“Despite what Philip Hammond may have thought of me at the time,” he quips).

He has also called out the Government on inaction on refugees in 2015 and the Persian Gulf oil tanker crisis last summer. He was also a vocal supporter for the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, and lowering the voting age to 16.

“If we all toe the line as MPs we’ll never change the things that we all complain don’t work properly,” he explains. “I hope one of the reasons why I attracted support as chairman of a select committee is because people know that I’m willing to stick my neck out and throw ideas into the pot. It’s then for other people if they decide to agree with them or not.”

When asked about the influence of fellow self-styled “trailblazer” Dominic Cummings over in No 10, Merriman says he’s “quite torn”. “On the one hand, I like people that have original thought, who challenge the status quo.” In particular, Merriman is supportive of the notion of “shaking up” the civil service to make it more responsive to the needs of constituents: “I think he’s a breath of fresh air as far as that’s concerned.”

But he adds that he finds the No10 adviser’s “somewhat brutal” way of operating a concern. “There seems to be a sort of nasty streak behind some of these briefings. And if our whole mantra is to try and unite the country… then I’m not sure why we need to be quite so divisive in the tone and language that we’re using. I just don’t think it’s going to end well.”

One recent high-profile intervention on that topic came last weekend, with an op-ed in The Telegraph last weekend against what Merriman terms the “ideological trench warfare” against the BBC. “It’s fair enough to say we need to have a conversation about whether the licence fee is going to still be relevant in 2027… I agree with that conversation,” Merriman, who chairs the APPG on the corporation, explains. “But this whole thing about ‘whacking’, about ‘it’s got hundreds of radio stations, and we’re going to close them down’. It doesn’t, it has 63 and so therefore, the facts aren’t correct.”

Although he personally supports the continuation of the licence fee model, Merriman says it was the “not helpful” and “unedifying” tone of the briefings from Downing Street that prompted him to step in. “I felt that [the BBC] needed a supportive voice... I dislike the nasty manner in which this debate is being conducted. It needs to stop.”

One area where he mostly agrees with the Government (although again not Cummings) is HS2. Although the last Transport Committee never came out with a formal view on the controversial project, Merriman is “in favour of big transport infrastructure projects that changed the game and regenerate”. “HS2 would fall into that category.”

Although Merriman agrees that the spiralling costs have weakened the business case, he still sees HS2 as “the railway of the future”. “Capacity has doubled over the last 20 years and will double again in the next 20 years. We’ve got to get ready for that.”

Although the regime may have changed and he misses a few of the old faces (Hammond and Nick Boles in particular), he’s optimistic about his new “independent minded colleagues”.

“It’ll be quite exciting to see the Conservative Party as it now is. There used to be a time when the Conservative Party was just a bit stereotypical of a certain voter. Now, you can’t stereotype the Conservative Party anymore, which is great.”

So no hope for his Mum’s “long term project” for his defection then? He smiles. “This is my party and always has been.”

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