Sir Richard Branson showed his genius for fuelling a story today when he offered to run the West Coast line for several months without making a profit to let ministers have more time to review their decision to strip the franchise from his company Virgin Trains.
Writing the the Sunday Telegraph, Sir Richard said:
It is far better for MPs to have the chance to debate the issues, and question ministers on the detail before the decision is finalised. To assist in this process, there should be an independent audit of the department for transport decision to ensure it has been based on correct criteria and reliable forecasting of customer numbers, revenue and payments to government.
If this process means extending the current franchise beyond December for a few months, I and my partners at Stagecoach would happily run the extended franchise on a not-for-profit basis, or donate profits to charity. We must ensure that this crucial decision is taken with all the facts correctly assessed and understood.
Until now, the response from FirstGroup, which won the bid and is due to sign the contract this week, has been courteous, bordering on aloof. On Friday, the company issued a rather bland statement simply saying:
Sir Richard is a very high profile figure with millions following him personally on social media. Therefore it’s not surprising that a number of people have voiced their support of him personally and his company…
Our bid represents the best value for the taxpayers who have funded over £9bn of investment on the line, and in this economic environment that should not be forgotten.
Today, however, the gloves are off.
One person close to the company told me Sir Richard’s campaign “increasingly smacks of desperation”. An official spokesman added:
The fact that he can make this offer [to run the line without making a profit] shows how large his profit margins will be and what a mistake he made when bidding and not giving a fair deal to the British taxpayer.
It’s a clever response: turning Sir Richard’s publicity stunt against him. But the personal nature of the comments shows how irritated FirstGroup is becoming with the whole affair. The company has reason to be rattled: over the last two days, the petition calling for ministers to reconsider their decision has added another 25,000 signatures, taking the total to 125,000.