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Ridley was right!

19th January 1985
Page 24
Page 24, 19th January 1985 — Ridley was right!
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

GENTLE reader, prepare to be shocked. For this week I propose to defend Mr Nicholas Ridley.

You will know that, to say the least, I am not an admirer of Mr Ridley. My only doubt about him is whether he is the worst Transport Minister since Tom Fraser (1964-65) or only since Dr John Gilbert (1975-78).

Nor is my defence inspired by the well-known British propensity to protect endangered species, though after his various civil aviation fiascos Mr Ridley certainly comes into that category.

But his performance at last month's meeting of EEC Transport Ministers in Brussels deserves greater recognition than it has so far received. Badly handled it could have been a disaster; in fact it was almost all good news, even though some of it is deferred.

The RHA and FTA do not agree. Their public reaction concentrated on Britain's exclusion from the agreement by all other countries except Ireland to accept 40-tonne lorries as standard for international haulage. The RHA calls this "ill-considered", while the FTA was "disappointed."

Both reactions are quite understandable. But they overlook the real world in which Mr Ridley had to operate.

For his hands were tied by his two predecessors. David Howell, fearing defeat over his proposed increase to 38 tonnes, felt obliged to say that this was the end of that particular road. Whether that was really necessary to secure passage of the legislation must remain doubtful in view of the large majority which the proposal got when put to the vote. But it is a fact. Perhaps the real blame should be laid at the door of Norman Fowler. He "dumped" the Armitage 44 tonne recommendation for no better reason than to enable him to embarrass Albert Booth by accepting his hostile Commons motion which specified that particular weight. This clever, even crafty, Parliamentary tactic left the unfortunate Mr Howell little room for manoeuvre.

But the pledge was given. And for Mr Ridley to have gone back on it would have been disastrous — and not only for any political future he may have left. The road haulage industry would also have suffered. Let me explain by looking at what would have happened if Mr Ridley had accepted 40 tonnes.

First, he was in no position to give an unconditional acceptance to any lorry weights deal because he had not obtained advance Parliamentary clearance. So even the British exclusion had to be accepted with a waiting reservation (reserve d'attente for collectors of Euro-jargon). In return some Ministers made their acceptance of other items in the package — bigger quotas, infrastructure grants and amended drivers' hours rules — dependent on the British reserve being lifted. And in a hurriedly arranged late night debate just before Christmas the Commons approved the deal which excluded Britain from 40 tonnes.

But suppose that, instead of seeking MPs' blessing on Britain's exclusion, Mr Ridley had sought approval for 40 tonnes? In addition to all the tediously familiar arguments on the substantial question there would have been a new element. Mr Ridley would have been accused of breaking David Howell's pledge that 38 tonnes was the absolute limit. That sort of point appeals to MPs of all persuasions, even when in a less rebellious mood than currently exists on the Tory backbenches.

Even worse, Mr Ridley would have been accused of breaking this pledge at the behest of two highly unpopular groups — the EEC and the road haulage industry.

Even in normal times (if such a term has any meaning these days) there could have been no certainty that Parliament would have approved 40 tonnes. But the times were definitely not normal during December. Backbenchers had already tasted Sir Keith Joseph's blood over student grants. They had also tasted Mr Ridley's when they forced him to climb down over Stansted Airport. Lorry weights could have turned these sanguinary drinks into mere appetisers before a really big bite of the Ridley flesh.

If that had happened Mr Ridley (or more probably his successor) would have had to go back to Brussels and report failure. That would certainly have meant no quota increase and probably no increase on infrastructure expenditure. It would also have jeopardised the drivers' hours review. And it would have made all future Transport Ministers even more wary of trying to solve the lorry weights question than they are already.

Even if Parliament had approved 40 tonnes there would have been massive opposition. Mr Ridley would have had to give assurances about further measures to control the "juggernaut menace". These would no doubt have included a pledge that the 40-tonners would be "forced to pay their way". The Chancellor would have had no difficulty in fulfilling that particular pledge in his forthcoming Budget.

So not only has Mr Ridley saved his own skin. He has not given any further excuses to those who wish to impose further curbs or taxes on the road haulage industry.

But my admiration does not arise from that negative achievement. It stems from the fact that, despite his insistence on excluding Britain from 40 tonnes, he was able to obtain all the other "goodies" in the Brussels package. In my last article (CM, January 5) I mentioned John Peyton's 1972 refusal to accept heavier lorries. On that occasion the French took their revenge by blocking our quota increase. That could easily have been repeated last month. It is a tribute to Mr Ridley's unsuspected negotiating skills (or perhaps to the advice he was given by his officials) that this did not happen.

I am not suggesting that Britain can or should shut out 40 tonnes for ever. Clearly that exclusion makes nonsense of all the talk by Mr Ridley and other Ministers about removing barriers to trade within the EEC.

So I hope that Mr Ridley is not sitting back thinking that he has solved the lorry weight question at least until 1987 when, on past performance, someone else will be sitting on the 12th floor at Marsham Street. Instead I hope that he is asking his civil servants to make it clear in the corridors of Brussels that Britain could accept 40 tonnes in exchange for greater freedom for international haulage and more EEC-financed transport infrastructure investment in Britain.

That would enable him (or his successor) to go to Parliament in 1987 with a packaga which would stand some chance of acceptance. In turn that would enable me to write a second article praising Mr Ridley even if by then he is Lord Ridley of Stansted.

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