Pressure on the government is intensifying over its decision to award a £1.4bn contract to build trains in Germany for the Thameslink line rather than in Derby. A new poll has revealed that if the government does not reverse its decision, the Conservative and Liberal Democrats will pay a heavy electoral price. Local people are enraged that the government is turning its back on British manufacturing.
After British Rail Engineering Ltd was privatised in 1989, Derby is now home to the last remaining train manufacturing company in the UK where Bombardier has its works. But from the autumn of this year, the factory will only have enough work for up to 300 people completing trains for the London Underground. The commercial realities of that fact are that, although Bombardier is a good employer, it is still a multinational corporation, driven by the bottom line. The site in Derby will not justify the overhead of such a large site unless the government reverses its decision on Thameslink.
The company has already announced a review of its UK operations and a final decision will be made by its board of directors in Montreal, which could decide to pull out of the UK. Bombardier has large factories on the continent and could simply bid for future UK rail contracts from its French and German bases. It could also complete the contract for the London Underground at one of its European sites too. We are therefore facing the prospect of the UK, the country that gave the world the railways, not having any train manufacturing capability beyond the end of this year.
The sense of indignation in the Derby area and beyond is palpable because David Cameron brought his cabinet to Derby for its meeting in March this year. He used the meeting to suggest that he would use all the instruments of government to rebalance the economy in favour of manufacturing. George Osborne rammed home the point when he said:
“Derby is a great example of what Britain’s economy should be in the future and a strong endorsement of the importance of manufacturing industry”.
Local people were understandably reassured by what they heard, which is why the sense of abject betrayal is now so strong. The electoral consequences are dire for the Tories in local constituencies, with 41% of their voters saying they are unlikely to support them next time unless they change this decision. This poll showing support for the government in freefall also reveals that 84% of Conservative voters do not believe the Government has acted in the best interest of Britain.
This is now a question of trust for the government. David Cameron and his ministers keep saying they want to rebalance the economy, but 79% in this poll believe that the government is not committed to British Industry – including 60% of Conservative voters. This isn’t surprising in view of his volte-face from what he said in Derby five months ago.
In 1971 Derby faced another huge challenge to its manufacturing base when Rolls Royce went bust. At that time Ted Heath was the Tory Prime Minister who, like David Cameron, initially said there was nothing the government could do. But in the end he nationalised Rolls Royce and the rest is history. This government isn’t great on learning the lessons of history and is pursuing the same flawed economic policies as its discredited predecessors.
But when it comes to following one of the few policy decisions a previous Tory government got right, there seems to be a marked reluctance! We’re not asking David Cameron to renationalise British train making, merely to appoint Bombardier to build these trains so that the industry can continue to have a future in the UK.
It is cold comfort to know that the Tories and Lib Dems will pay a heavy electoral price for this folly. I am more concerned about the thousands of highly skilled engineers who will lose their livelihoods if the government persists with the fiction that its hands are tied. Cameron must act before it is too late.