Recently, the Prime Minister has been handed on a plate a chance to raise her profile, save the country billions, provide lots of election goodies, please a large majority of the population, and leave Jezza floundering, all at the same time. Too good to be true? Possibly, given a Tory Party reminiscent of a rabbit in a Land Rover’s headlights. But it’s still worth trying.
You’ve guessed: the key is HS2. It hasn't been good week for Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, normally an effective politician. He looked like a cornered car salesman when he declined to reveal HS2's current budget or timescale. Forget “commercial confidentiality”; it’s obvious to a blind imbecile that both are seriously out of control, and that the whole plan faces serious problems.
This is May’s opportunity. Be open. State that times have changed, that the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee was right to have its doubts two years ago; that even a number of professionals have their doubts; that a new estimate of something like £400 million per mile, way above previous predictions, shows that it’s time to think again; that we need a cushion for Brexit, and that the Tory Party is the party that’s prepared to do all this. HS2, regrettably, has to go.
First benefit: large numbers of extra votes based on financial prudence (a poll last year showed that only 15 per cent thought HS2 wasn’t a waste of money) and simple self-interest (think voters in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northants, Warwickshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire, not forgetting the nonsense of demolishing newbuild houses near Doncaster that happen to get in the way). And then add in the support of large numbers of her own MPs, together with some from the opposition, who have never been happy with this vanity project anyway; not to mention a sizeable number of local authorities, including those such as Coventry, who one might have thought stood to benefit.
Second benefit: a sensible decision in any case. As we pointed out on TCW a few months ago, the economics of the project took a big knock a little time ago when the House of Lords decided that HS2 couldn’t make its money from land development funded by compulsory purchase powers. As to who would use any new line, it would not be the likes of you and me, who don’t tend to need to travel from London to Manchester in 70 minutes; it would probably be a small number of high-powered lawyers, accountants and local authority bigwigs. The rest of us would use the older, and no doubt cheaper, ordinary main line, as would those whose destination was intermediate towns like Northampton, Lichfield or Stafford, which the new line wouldn’t serve. Indeed, there’s no guarantee that by connecting a few selected cities in the North we would regenerate the North at all. The law of unintended consequences means we might actually attract more business away from the North by making London easier to reach from places such as Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.
Of course, we accept that there is a need for more rail capacity: the West Coast Main Line is running near its limit, and we need the ability to run more passenger and freight trains from the North to the South East. But there are other ways of doing this. The line from Paddington to Birmingham could be upgraded; and the old Great Central line – built to the more generous Continental loading-gauge and thus able to take larger trains from Europe – could be brought back into use at a fraction of the cost in land and disruption of HS2. The thinking behind HS2, which is that we should build a new super-speed passenger-only line serving very few towns in order to free up the old line that serves all of them for more freight traffic, is frankly dotty.
Third benefit: ditching HS2 gives Theresa £100 billion, give or take a few, to play with. Improve existing lines; restore electrification between Bath and Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea (thus avoiding considerable resentment in Wales – see here) and on the Midland Main Line. And there’s plenty of change for other projects, such as better housing, selective help for university students, or superfast broadband for all.
Fourth benefit: big problems for Labour. Corbyn desperately needs middle-class votes: there are precious few of those who support HS2, and faced with a decision by May to get rid of this albatross around her neck, it would be electorally very hard for Jezza, whose financial reputation is shaky at best, to insist on blowing £100 billion on a project most people regard as a complete waste of money.
Come to think of it, there’s an even more worrying scenario. One very cheap way for Jeremy Corbyn to gain the votes of Middle England would be for him to advocate abandoning HS2: by doing this he would get a reputation for financial prudence and popularity at one fell swoop. Tories, take note and think: this is a danger that may be closer than you imagine.
(Image: Mike T)