Neil White: Government listens to Sir Richard but not 10,000 ordinary folk
I HAVE to admire Sir Richard Branson.
This is a chap who dropped out of school in the mid-1960s and immediately set about starting his own student magazine.
Apparently, he was living in a commune when he came up with the idea of a mail-order company to back up the modest success of the publication.
His new company was called Virgin and we all know what happened next.
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I remember when even buying a record on the Virgin label seemed rather naughty (it wasn’t just the name and the rather saucy logo but the fact that it was home to outrageous bands like the Sex Pistols).
Since then, Branson has become a major media and transport mogul without losing that sense of “good old Richard”.
Presumably, he must be hard-nosed to achieve all he has and yet he comes across as far more personable than a Murdoch or a Sugar.
In fact, I had thought he seemed too good to be true until seeing him in the flesh at the University of Derby a few years back confirmed him in my estimation.
He was opening the university’s Markeaton Street site and was oozing enthusiasm in an inspirational speech to students.
But Sir Richard hasn’t become one of the world’s most famous entrepreneurs by being a fool and he has proved that point most recently by taking on the Government over the West Coast rail franchise, which his firm had lost out on.
His pressure for an investigation into the tender process resulted in the Government last week admitting that there had been significant flaws and saying it would have to be re-run.
The Department for Transport found the errors as it was preparing to contest the judicial review Virgin sought in the High Court after losing the franchise. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, the Derbyshire Dales MP, said: “Some of the points Richard Branson made were found to be correct but there were things that were more wide-ranging. That’s why I took the decision to go back to the drawing board.’’
So, let me get it right – when someone with the political clout and deep pockets of Sir Richard Branson put ministers under pressure they acted but they did not feel as inclined to take action when 10,000 Derbyshire people took to the streets in similar circumstances.
This newspaper proved over and over again that another Department of Transport tender process – the Thameslink project – was flawed.
We pointed out many reasons why it should be re-examined, not least because of corruption charges being faced by Siemens, the German company which won the contract to build carriages, ahead of Derby-based Bombardier.
Academics and business experts demonstrated to the Government that the decision was folly but ministers refused to listen.
We felt we had a cast-iron case for the franchise to be re-examined but, while we were pleased more deals came to Bombardier following the campaign, the big one slipped away.
It is a pity we didn’t enlist the help of someone of Sir Richard’s pedigree.
On the evidence of last week’s fiasco, he could have inspired positive action instead of the collective shoulder-shrugging from those in Whitehall.