News that Chris Grayling is to be appointed chair of the intelligence and security committee feels like a cosmic inevitability. There is simply no aspect of the British state that is regarded as too big to Grayl. In the event of nuclear devastation, almost certainly somehow caused by Chris Grayling, Chris Grayling would not simply survive, but there would be someone surveying the ash cloud and the onset of nuclear winter going: “You know what, clearing this up looks like a job for Chris Grayling.”
Please don’t ask by what arcane Downing Street process committee appointments such as Grayling’s are decided. You are much better off imagining a wingbacked armchair with its back to the viewer, so that all that can be heard is a Mr Burns voice rasping: “Grayling, you say. Remind me of his track record.” “Well, put simply, sir … his record is that there is no longer a track. There’s just a huge stretch of scorched earth, dozens of charred horse skeletons, and it’s all overhung by a noxious pall so toxic it makes the Chernobyl exclusion zone seem like a visit to the Selfridges perfume counter.” “Perfect. Prepare his office.”
What do you even call this way of parcelling out power to inept satellites? A wallygarchy? At least Putin’s guys are competent. If one of them is ordered to take a company off the state’s hands or boil someone in oil, they discharge the task competently and with the requisite amount of pride in their work. Chris Grayling would bankrupt the company and boil the wrong guy, and in any case blow up the entire oil refinery in the process. He himself would walk from the conflagration unscathed – a sort of Terminator of shitness, who promptly receives a call on his mobile. “Chris, old boy!” the chap on the other end of the line would say. “Glad I caught you. How d’you fancy running something called a track and trace programme?”
Speaking of Vladimir Putin, the big focus for the intelligence committee is to finally publish the report into alleged Russian interference in UK politics. This document has been missing in one of those bureaucratic Bermuda triangles so beloved of transparent states. First it couldn’t be published because the committee couldn’t meet because we were having an election; and after the election they couldn’t publish it because they hadn’t convened the new committee. The report was sent to Downing Street last 17 October. Back then, it was said the likelihood of its contents being a bombshell was fairly slim, as the security services had signed off promptly on its conclusions.
Alas, even accounting for the advent of the coronavirus, the sheer amount of time that has passed since that moment has fanned the flame of hope, tended in some quarters, that the Russia report contains a smoking gun – some sensational revelation, some neat explanation for whichever development in British political life over the past four years the hoper can’t stomach any other way. We shall see.
For now, Grayling’s ascent to chairman is expected to be a formality. I very much enjoyed last night’s Guardian headline, “Grayling closes in on role as chair of UK intelligence committee”. Closing in suggests a degree of targeted precision that Chris Grayling’s career does not. The only way Chris Grayling could close in on the intelligence and security chair is if he was actually attempting to close in on the keys to a holiday caravan in Rhyl.
Before he plays us some of his new stuff, then, let’s take a moment to appreciate a few of Chris’s greatest hits. I’m afraid I am wildly constrained by space, though lowlights include his time as justice secretary, during which he instituted a widely condemned ban on books being sent to prisoners, and delivered hugely expensive yet rushed reforms to the probation service that contrived to significantly increase reoffending. The commercial arm of his department attempted to sell prison services to Saudi Arabia.
But it would be arguably at transport where his work ascended to the status of art form. He presided over the collapse of Govia Thameslink and Northern rail services, of course, though his My Way is surely the story of Seaborne Freight. This is the one where Grayling paid £1m to consultants and awarded a £14m contract to a firm for ferry services in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It swiftly emerged that the terms and conditions on Seaborne Freight’s website were cut and pasted from a food delivery firm. In one section they pointed out: “It is the responsibility of the customer to thoroughly check the supplied goods before agreeing to pay for any meal/order.” Grayling, alas, had failed to check Seaborne’s goods before paying, and so it was that he only found out after losing £14m that the ferry firm … that the ferry firm… I’m so sorry, I can never believe I have to type this … that the ferry firm had no ferries.
When news of Grayling’s appointment broke, some people marvelled: “How does he do it?”. As though the tendency were something new. In fact, seeing men like Grayling continue to fail upwards is deeply traditional. Far from being an aberration, it is in keeping with the spirit of the political age: an aggressively misplaced nostalgia.
Indeed, there is an aspect of Brexit and the calibre of its ascendant personnel that has always felt karmic. Grayling’s wildly overpromoted slapdashery is precisely the level of failure and incompetence you might have found in, say, the British Raj. Had he been born under earlier stars, you can absolutely see Chris dashing off a few catastrophic boundary changes for Louis Mountbatten, or ruining a province only to be rewarded with a bigger one. The difference is that we’ve brought it all home now. Having run out of other countries to do it to, Britain is now British empiring itself.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist