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The Treasury dislikes HS2. Labour is equivocal. Tory backbench opposition could kill it off.

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-09-07 at 06.32.09When David Cameron, Nick Clegg and George Osborne all rally round HS2 within the space of a few days, you know that it may never leave the station. Alistair Darling and Peter Mandelson have come out against the plan.  Owen Paterson is said to be doubtful, and determined to kill it. The CBI is equivocal. However, the biggest threat to the project comes in a pincer movement from Labour's front bench and the Treasury.  Ed Balls could make great play of the billions of pounds which cancellation would allow him to spend elsewhere - however ropey such calculations may be.  And Nick Macpherson, the Treasury's Permanent Secretary, said earlier this week that the scheme may be scrapped after all: he was reflecting the Treasury's institutional resistance to its rising costs. 

The Public Accounts Committee will issue a report on HS2 next week, doubtless couched in vivid terms.  The Prime Minister launched a defence of the project yesterday, and the Daily Mail reports that it may get its own "dedicated Minister".  I've outlined previously Downing Street's triple reason for sticking with the plan.  It believes that Britain should commit itself more enthusiastically to grands projets, that U-turn would be a morale-sapping admission of failure, and - perhaps most importantly of all - that HS2 is a symbol of Conservative commitment to the north (though some polling has found that it's unpopular there).

I am less convinced than some that rail is finished as a means of transport - in the medium-term, at least.  But the case against HS2 is strong.  If one doesn't believe in high speed rail at all, it follows that the £50 billion that will be spent on the plan (or whatever the sum eventually turns out to be) would be better spent on other communications projects - including high speed broadband as well as rail.  And if one does believe in high speed rail in principle, it makes no sense to plan the HS2 route first and airport expansion later.  Furthermore, no convincing and consistent business case has been made for it. To date, most Conservative MPs have left HS2 well alone: opposition to it consists of an alliance of those whose constituencies are affected plus some fiscal hawks.  The scheme will grind on, in the short-term at least.  But a increase in the number of its Commons critics could bring it to a halt.


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