David Lidington straightened his tie and put on his most grown-up face. Not easy for someone who naturally has the look of a failing children’s party entertainer. The collapse of Carillion was regrettable and disappointing, he said in statement to the Commons. Moments later he described the liquidation as disappointing and regrettable. It was all disappointingly regrettable. Or regrettably disappointing.
The newly appointed cabinet secretary didn’t really have much more than that to say about Carillion, other than it definitely wasn’t his fault. No one could possibly have predicted the firm was going bust. “The government always has robust contingency plans in place for failure,” he insisted. Albeit ones that didn’t take any account of the series of profit warnings.
Carillion was just one of those things. Something to write down to experience and move on from. Going forward. Even though he and the government definitely knew nothing about anything because there had never been anything to know, he was absolutely certain that the company’s problems were entirely down to the contracts they had taken out with private firms and not ones they had taken out with the government.
But Carillion employees weren’t to worry because he had just set up a Jobcentre Plus helpline for anyone who lost their job. It was all said with an air of faint bemusement and emotional detachment. Lidington couldn’t have sounded as if he gave less of a toss if he had tried.
Labour’s shadow communities secretary, Jon Trickett, was less than impressed. Which bit of the three CEOs, the three profit warnings and the short-selling on the stock market had Lidington failed to notice? Why was the government still handing out £2bn worth of contracts long after everyone in the country except Chris Grayling and a couple of other dopey ministers had noticed the company was in trouble? And how did he feel about the irony of the Carillion board chairman being the government’s corporate responsibility tsar?
It was only now that the gravity of the situation appeared to dawn on Lidington. His ears reddened to a deep crimson. A sure sign that he was out of his depth and severely pissed off about having to take the flak for other ministers’ lapses. There again, he was in good company. There can’t be a member of the cabinet who hasn’t had to cover up for the careless stupidity of Failing Grayling. It was just Lidington’s bad luck that it was his turn.
“Labour is just scaremongering,” he blustered. Scaremongering as in telling the truth. Carillion had been in tip-top shape when all the government contracts had been handed out and no one could persuade him otherwise. He had one story and he was going to stick to it. Though he was regretful and disappointed. And disappointed and regretful.
A series of prominent Labour backbenchers, including Emma Reynolds, Rachel Reeves and Hilary Benn, were rather more clued up on Carillion’s failures than Lidington and pressed him for both an apology and reassurances. Neither was forthcoming. The Jobcentre Plus helpline was going to be the extent of the government’s largesse.
Which was more than enough for Tory backbenchers, who seemed to think the whole thing was a bit of a storm in a teacup. Something that would be here one day and gone the next. Much like the 20,000 Carillion jobs. Bill Cash and Cheryl Gillan even wondered if there wasn’t a possible upside to the liquidation. With the HS2 contracts flatlining, maybe now would be the time for the government to call off the railway line that was going to run through their constituencies. It’s good to know that some people can maintain a sense of perspective.