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Andrew Bridgen MP: Could Labour shoot the Government's fox - or rather, its white elephant: HS2?

24th August 2013: We originally published this post by Andrew Bridgen on 8th July. We're republishing it today in light of reports – including in the Times (£) – that "Labour’s leadership has put the coalition on notice that it will withdraw support for the controversial High Speed 2 rail line if costs continue to spiral."

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 15.51.09Andrew Bridgen is Member of Parliament for North West Leicestershire.  Follow Andrew on Twitter.

To many fellow Conservatives who have taken the view that HS2 is a White Elephant, we find ourselves in a strange position today by being in agreement with an article written by Lord Mandelson in which he states HS2 could be an "expensive mistake” and damage the north of England's economy.

This intervention should act as a warning shot to the Conservatives that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Labour could abandon the cross party consensus - and leave us high and dry supporting a project with spiralling costs which ploughs through dozens of Conservative constituencies.

During the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill debate I asked the Shadow Secretary of State for Transport to ‘reassure the House that Her Majesty’s Opposition’s support for HS2 will continue up to and beyond the next general election? The support being given to the Government in this case is, I believe, rather like the support given by the rope to the hanged man. 

The response I received was ‘The honourable Gentleman is speaking in hope rather than expectation. I know his own personal concern about the scheme and I understand his point, but I can be clear with the House that Labour supports getting on with building this north-south line."

However Maria Eagle, the speaker, is only one reshuffle away from Labour being in a position to cancel HS2, so they are leaving themselves wriggle room.  Lord Mandelson also wrote that Labour's backing for the project in 2010 was a "politically-driven" decision intended to "paint an upbeat view of the future" following the financial crash.

He added further caveats, such as "the last Labour government had assumed that the project would attract funding from the City rather than the burden falling on taxpayers" and the economic benefits of HS2 were "neither quantified nor proven" and failed to take account of how the money might be spent on other projects instead. Alistair Darling has also come out as a HS2 sceptic, and one has to wonder who the next Labour heavyweight to come out against HS2 will be?

With Ed Balls having little to work with for the 2015 Labour election manifesto, the idea of taking £50 billion off the future balance sheet by scrapping HS2 to spend elsewhere, which simultaneously would put dozens of Conservative MP’s and candidates on the back foot could be an enticing prospect for the Shadow Chancellor, particularly as the Northern cities who stand to receive the perceived benefits from HS2 will continue to vote Labour.  According to Yougov, 46 per cent of people oppose the project and outnumber those who support it by 12 points.

Many in the media are sceptical about HS2 and the nearer we get to a start date, the weaker the business case becomes. Lord Mandelson calculates every move he makes which marks his intervention in this matter as particularly significant prior to the Hybrid Bill in the autumn and this could be the beginning of a process of support withdrawal by Labour which would leave the Conservative Party shunted into a political siding. 


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