The Labour party is hedging its bets in the run-up to the election over this key infrastructure project
Canny politician that he is, Ed Balls gave Ed Miliband an option to take advantage of public opposition to HS2 if Labour faltered ahead of the general election. In a 2013 speech, the shadow chancellor said: “The question is not whether a new high speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50bn for the future of our country.”
Hopes for HS2 were fading at the time: there was dismay that the cost of the London-to-Birmingham first phase had been underestimated; growing fears of environmental blight; and an ill-judged emphasis on cutting journey times rather than tackling an under-capacity crisis on the railways, which are at their busiest since the 1920s. Opposition has cooled under the leadership of Sir David Higgins, who became chairman after Doug Oakervee, who was better known as “Captain Invisible” by some of those involved in HS2, left at the end of 2013.
If Labour takes power, Michael Dugher, who holds the transport brief, and the Treasury will undertake a cost review of the Y-shaped second phase
The former Olympic Delivery Authority boss is so well regarded that even Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge who is sceptical of HS2’s benefits, did not challenge his appointment, despite concerns it may have flouted civil service rules.
If there was still the same level of hostility to HS2 that existed two years ago, Balls might well be pushing Miliband to place scrapping the project front-and-centre of Labour’s manifesto. As it is, a shadow cabinet member says the pair have come to a “settlement”, which seems to mean backing phase one.
With little political gain, it was not worth risking an internal row with Lord Adonis, the shadow infrastructure minister who is credited with originally thinking up HS2. But Balls is also sympathetic to the likes of former chancellor Alistair Darling, who worries the cost is too great for a single railway. If Labour takes power, Michael Dugher, who holds the transport brief, and the Treasury will undertake a cost review of the Y-shaped second phase, reaching Manchester and Leeds from Birmingham. Billions could be taken out of phase two and spent on other rail projects. That might even be sufficient to make phase two unviable. A cosy cross-party consensus is more likely to be broken in the aftermath than in the run-up to a general election.
Mark Leftly covers politics for The Independent on Sunday and is associate business editor across the Independent newspapers and the London Evening Standard