An imagined scene from a Department of Transport office a few weeks ago...
“Well Sir Humphrey, we’ve finally got that blighter Branson off the tracks thanks to this nice American-sounding chap in a suit who runs First Group.
“That lovely Canadian-sounding fellow has offered zillions of pounds more than that rather unkempt, hippyish Richard cove with that rather naff island called Necker or whatever.
“That’s just what George, our beloved Chancellor, wants us to do - get more bang for our railway buck because - ourselves apart - we are all cash-strapped. And only posh people like us use the railways and we can afford those soaring fares.
“Of course, Sir Humphrey, it goes without saying that our sums are robust. We’ve done the maths, pressed the right buttons, and it’s all perfectly accurate.
“Naturally Sir Humphrey we haven’t taken passenger opinion into account. Why should we? It’s pound signs that count, isn’t it. And anyway Justine told us that it doesn’t matter that Virgin trains are more popular with passengers than the lovely First Group.
“And yes, of course - whatever the beastly Branson says - we’ve correctly priced the risk in the unlikely event that the wonderful Tim O’Toole will not find tall that lovely money he has promised. We know what we are doing. We have done this lots of times before.
“It was not our fault that Sir Branson came second so often. He was just so mean with his sums. It was just bad luck that our winners who offered bags of cash had a little trouble finding enough to pay Number 11 and had to shut down.
“That’s no excuse for Richard Virgin to criticise us and the process. Typical of his sort to whinge. And whoever would want to choose that nasty red colour for trains. Ugh.
“No, Sir Humphrey, Justine and George have nothing to worry about. We are on the right track. Wonderful First Group have come up with some super eye-watering figures that will make George purr. And, yippee, more fare and crowding misery for those moaning minnies who pay the fares.
"If Branson threatens us, that’s typical of the man. We can take it. Robust is our name and we have Justine to defend the decision. She’s a good Transport Secretary who’s checked the figures and should be with us for years to come. Hooray for FirstGroup. Good riddance to Virgin.”
[The same office a few days ago]
“Shame Justine had to go. But I’m afraid to tell you Sir Humphrey, there has been a teeny weeny mistake in our calculations. After that nasty Branson threatened to take us to court, we went back to the drawing board, and, er, something has gone ever so slightly wrong.
“We seem to have pressed the wrong button on our keyboard. Easy mistake to make. Our computer model seems to have marginally under-estimated the risk posed by the fabulous First Group. Yes, I know that’s what the publicity-seeking Branson has said all along, but how could you believe anyone without a tie?
“I think we’ll just have to tell that lovely Mr O’Toole that he will have to go back to the drawing board. But I’m sure that as long as he comes up with the same perfectly decent offer again, he can still beat off the Virgin.
“I suppose you ought to tell new boy Patrick about this minor error. But he needn’t worry, it’s an honest mistake. We can spin out of it. David Cameron won’t even notice.
“What, you want to suspend us? Surely not, we are fire-proofed civil servants who only wanted to make a few bob for George. What, we’ve got to hand back £40m to Peter O’Toole and crowing Branson?
“And we’ve got to tell Southeastern that they can put their bid on hold until former Eurostar boss Richard Brown sorts things out? But the man who cut Brussels services stopping at Ashford International might tell us that this is no way to run a railway.”
[Outside in the real world]
[Sounds of agreement from Branson and his satisfied passengers]
They shout together: “Common sense at last. We told you so. Maybe it’s time for someone who knows what they are doing to crunch the figures. For once, think of us. Get a grip and take our views into account. And remember, all that glitters is not gold.”