In hindsight, it was probably always going to end like this.
Lord Adonis did his best to spoil Theresa May’s New Year’s Eve celebrations by stepping down from his position as chair of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) just days before the new year. But it wasn’t so much the fact he decided to leave, as the long letter of resignation, in which is provided an excoriating assessment of the government’s performance, that caught the attention of the national press.
The fact that his lordship is a former Labour transport secretary and junior schools minister had once been trumpeted as a triumph of then-Chancellor George Osborne’s ability to grab the centre ground. However, it was always a potentially tricky fit – even if Lord Adonis was considered among the less tribal of politicians, more focused on the end product than the particular colour of the government providing the method. Indeed, there can be few people in frontline politics who can count time as a Liberal Democrat councillor, a stint as a Labour minister and a role heading a body for a Conservative government on their CVs.
In part, of course, this was why Lord Adonis was seen as the perfect fit for the NIC. This body was meant to take the politics out of infrastructure planning, so having someone who came from such a diverse background and was willing to work with a Conservative government seemed to make sense.
However, his ambitions had always been there in the background. When I interviewed him at an event with Clyde & Co just over a year ago, he pointed out that former transport secretaries can often make good chancellors. His comment may have been very much tongue in cheek at the time, but his interest in political decisions seems to have grown in recent times: a quick look at his Twitter feed for the past few months shows that Lord Adonis was eager to make political points that were far outside the realms of infrastructure.
After the Brexit vote, the tension was made all the more difficult, especially as Lord Adonis started to become one of the most vocal remainer voices anywhere on the left. As a confirmed Blairite in Jeremy Corbyn’s new-old Labour party, he has increasingly found himself articulating the ‘New Labour’ approach to Europe.
The big question for the infrastructure industry now, however, is where does all this leave the NIC?
As we await news on an interim appointment, the positive thing is that the organisation’s deputy, Sir John Armitt, is more than qualified to look after the commission for the time being. Sir John is immensely experienced at running major infrastructure-focused organisations, having been chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority and, many years earlier, leading the company responsible for implementing the Channel Tunnel rail link. And, he has no particular affiliations to any political party.
However, the NIC is about much more than simply delivering new infrastructure projects on the ground. Lord Adonis was always the figurehead of the organisation, able to elevate the discussion on future of infrastructure above the realm of just the narrow industry and – in no small part because of his political background – was able to get a wider audience to listen. Whoever replaces him will need to have a similar ability if the NIC is to be at the forefront of shaping the infrastructure sector.
Given Prime Minister Theresa May’s precarious political position, she may be tempted to replace him with a party man or woman.
To do so would not only be a missed opportunity, but would add to some concerns within the industry that the NIC is fast fading into just another government unit, with little real independence or clout.
That has been the worry ever since it became clear that the NIC would become an executive agency of the Treasury, rather than a separate body underpinned by legislation enshrining its independence.
With so much to consider, and so much at stake, it is probably fair to say that the choice of the NIC’s new leader could well be the most important of its short life.