The slow disintegration of the Post Office revives a question that has been in the political air for two decades: is privatisation the answer? After all, in the late 1980s, the project was firmly in the sights of Mrs Thatcher’s government, buoyed up by the runaway success of its other privatisations. If state-owned behemoths like British Gas, British Airways and British Telecom could be sold off and improved beyond all recognition, why not the creaky old Royal Mail? It was overstaffed and inefficient, saddled with a poor management and an obstructive union (no change there then).
Although the Prime Minister, unusually for her, was said to have her doubts, her more radical underlings had no such qualms and pressed ahead with the preparatory spadework. But when the news leaked out, one message was enough to kill it stone dead. It came from the royal yacht Britannia, pointing out that it was the Royal Mail and Her Majesty expected to be informed before any such drastic action was contemplated.
John Major’s administration resurrected the idea but was hamstrung by its small majority, vociferous backbench defenders of rural post offices and a slick PR campaign by the communication workers’ union, then headed by one Alan Johnson, now Home Secretary and remarkably silent these days about the Post Office’s problems. But then, with the Queen quietly blocking any hope of major reform, he can afford to be.