Hammersmith Bridge fiasco speaks volumes about how Britain is governed

The Tory party's shining star Charlotte Vere has played the political game well, writes Chris Blackhurst

FILE PHOTO: A warning sign is seen attached to Hammersmith Bridge, the closure of which has caused the annual Oxford versus Cambridge boat race on the River Thames, which passes under the now structurally dangerous Victorian bridge, to be relocated outside of London for the first time since World War Two, London, Britain, November 26, 2020. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

Not so long ago my wife and I attended as guests a local Conservative fund-raising dinner.

On our table was Charlotte Vere. She arrived late and showed little interest in us or the other folk around her. She was looking across the hall, seeing who was there, nodding at those she knew.

We can’t recall anything she said, such was her disinterest. We came away with the firm impression that here was a woman in a hurry, who oozed ambition. The Kingston & Surbiton Conservative Association appeared to be of little importance to her.

I say not that long ago for a reason, because soon afterwards Vere went on to try, and fail, to become an MP. First, in Brighton Pavilion, where she gained the Tory nomination before coming third at the ballot box in the 2010 general election. Then, in Kensington, where she fell at the party’s final selection round.

No worries. She subsequently became Baroness Vere of Norbiton, part of the borough of Kingston, and today is a member of the government as a junior minister in the Department of Transport.

Charlotte Vere, 52, now has a considerable bearing on my life. I live in south-west London, close to Hammersmith Bridge, a 19th Century suspension bridge which was fully closed to all traffic in August 2020 for safety reasons and has just partially reopened. The Baroness heads the Hammersmith Bridge task force. And, not to mention her other jobs as minister for roads, buses and places, she is also charged with resolving the national shortage of HGV drivers that has forced me to scout around and queue for fuel and is threatening to empty supermarket shelves.

Remarkable, to think that the person who bustled so ungraciously into that dinner should be such a power in the land. What qualifies Vere, and how has she propelled herself so far?

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Vere, though, is an example of someone who knows how to choose well. She is a consummate payer of the political game.

Her rise speaks volumes for how Britain is governed. In theory we’re a democracy - at least that is what we tell the world - but Vere is entirely unelected.

She was educated at the fee-paying Stover School in Devon and at University College London. Later she went to Kellogg management school in the US. She worked in banking for seven years, at CountyNatWest, DLJ and Barings. She married and had two children.

So far, there is little indication of what was to follow and in such short order. Vere, though, is an example of someone who knows how to choose well. She is a consummate player of the political game.

She did a job that few would wish to do but possibly she could see where it might lead. Do it well and you will get noticed. She became finance director of the Tories’ campaign against the alternative voting system. “Say No to AV” was a resounding success, and Vere duly found herself moving in senior Conservative Central Office circles.

That was followed by another unpromising post, executive director of “Conservatives In” before the EU referendum. The drive was not successful but it was enough to get her noticed by David Cameron, who made her a life peer in his 2016 resignation honours. Vere had divorced and remarried, also in 2016. Her new husband was Mike Chattey, Tory head of fund-raising since 2001.

For the previous four years, her day job was running the Girls’ Schools Association, the body that represents some of the leading girls’ private schools, among them Roedean, Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Wycombe Abbey. That ended abruptly when she was made a baroness.

While that left a nasty taste it did not matter: Vere’s star has continued to climb, in spite of her campaigning to stay in the EU, under Boris Johnson.

Those who have been in work meetings with her, say she is direct, no-nonsense. Officials are said to be nervous around her, unsure as to what she might say and do next.

Those are qualities that will endear her to the prime minister and to the transport secretary, Grant Shapps. Crucially, she has none of the baggage of the politician who is anxious to seek election — she is chasing approval from her superiors, not votes as well. She is not courting popularity and perhaps that explains why she is given, and accepts, briefs that others may be reluctant to tackle.

It may also lie behind a refusal to give ground. On Hammersmith Bridge, her role appears to be to heap blame upon the Labour council in Hammersmith, saying it is their bridge and their responsibility. The government put up some funding but will not buy the argument that this is a major piece of infrastructure and as such, requires financing from the national coffers.

Likewise, on lorries, she is spearheading attempts to persuade retired HGV drivers to return to work, while at the same time the government is attaching blame to the road haulage industry for not having a contingency in place. Claims that the lorry driver shortfall is down to Brexit and that ministers should also carry responsibility are brushed aside.

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Vere is not the conciliatory sort. One person who knows her well said that displaying empathy was not always her strong point, that she will relish confrontation - especially if it sends her higher still, so is unlikely to back down.

That is certainly the experience with Hammersmith, where those who are close to local efforts to secure the complete reopening of the bridge, to vehicles and pedestrians, accuse the Vere Task Force of having achieved little. They report seeing no sense of urgency, no banging of heads together, that you would normally associate with such a body. The government’s tactic all along, they maintain, seems to be to play a waiting game, to increase pressure on Hammersmith council.

Vere has defended the government’s position robustly, ensuring the buck is passed elsewhere, as she is doing again with the lorry drivers.

The remarkable rise of Charlotte Vere has yet to show any sign of abating.

Updated: October 6th 2021, 2:02 PM
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