Three cabinet ministers are braced for a potentially career-ending game of whodunnit following the revelation that the Department for Transport botched the West Coast mainline contract - sticking the taxpayer with a bill potentially running into hundreds of millions of pounds.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning the DfT announced it had u-turned on its decision to hand the contract to FirstGroup over Virgin Trains after discovering "significant technical flaws" in the way the franchise process was conducted – at a cost of £40m.
However the final bill could be as much as £300m, while £225m has been wiped off FirstGroup’s shares. At a time of public spending cuts the mistake could also cost one of three cabinet ministers their jobs.
Newly appointed transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin has sought to insulate himself from blame as he was not in-charge at the time the mistake was made.
McLoughlin blamed his officials for the shambles and three civil servants have been suspended. “The fault of this lies wholly and squarely with the Department for Transport,” he said.
The tactic not welcomed by the former head of the civil service, Lord O’Donnell, who said it was wrong for ministers to shift the blame onto their officials.
"What I think is self defeating is attacking their own staff," he told BBC Radio 4's Today Programme this morning.
More at risk are the previous transport secretary, Justine Greening, and the former transport minister Theresea Villers.
In September’s cabinet reshuffle both were moved, Greening was demoted to the international development department while Villiers was promoted to the cabinet as Northern Ireland secretary.
Greening was visiting Kenya as part of her new role when the mistake was uncovered, however having returned she is likely to come under pressure to explain how she did not spot the unfolding mess.
Villiers, who was trains minister at the time, will hope her time around the cabinet table is not derailed after only two months if she has to take the blame.
There are likely to be suspicious glances flying between the three cabinet colleagues on the train to Birmingham the Tory conference this weekend.
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