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Coffee House

The end of High Speed 2?

7 March 2014

4:05 PM

7 March 2014

4:05 PM

Haters of HS2 rejoice: the project has an even better chance of failing now. Following James’ revelation that the Transport Secretary doesn’t believe the Hybrid Bill will pass through Parliament before the next election, there are several scenarios on how the parties may change their stance on the project. If a cross-party consensus falls apart, HS2 will run into severe difficulties. Nearly all of the possibilities pose a threat to the line actually being built:

1. David Cameron remains Prime Minister

James played out this scenario in his blog yesterday, explaining why it matters that HS2 will be a big issue at the next general election. HS2 has always been a difficult sell to Tory MPs and the wider party, not withstanding the pressure following months of campaigning from Stop HS2, Ukip, the Countryside Alliance and anyone else who is against the line.

MPs from constituencies affected by the line will pile pressure onto Cameron to review the project if the Conservatives only return as the largest party rather than a majority government, as they will read the election result as a sign that HS2 is damaging the Tories.

2. Labour wins the next election

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Ed Balls has committed (£) to carrying out an audit of the project if Labour wins the next election. He has made it clear that he’s sceptical of the project, as is Andy Burnham, so this would an ideal time for Labour to kill HS2. Ed Miliband has so far stood behind the project, but with £10 billion to play with, a new Labour Prime Minster and Chancellor might be swayed by more popular ways of spending the money.

Labour councils in big cities would be very unhappy if Labour withdrew its support for HS2, as planning decision are already being made with HS2 in mind — for example, the new Curzon station in Birmingham involving 350 acres of redeveloped land.

3. David Cameron is kicked out as Tory leader

This ties in with Labour winning. If Cameron resigns as leader after losing the election, it’s fair to say George Osborne is unlikely to succeed him. In this instance, another Conservative leader, whoever that may be, could well be tempted to U-turn on HS2. Boris has been rather coy about the project while none of the other potential leaders have expressed much of an opinion. But it could be a way of them confronting their parties once in power. Particularly if Labour turn against the project — can you imagine the Tories in opposition standing behind it?

4. Another Tory-Lib Dem coalition

Assuming David Cameron manages to convince his party to support another coalition, this is most likely scenario involving the line becoming shovel-ready. Although a survey of Liberal Democrat activists suggests two thirds are in favour of HS2, the last ConservativeHome survey suggested over half of the Tory grassroots are against. I’d be surprised if that number isn’t bigger now. Cameron and Osborne have staked a significant amount of political capital on HS2, so it’s unlikely they would be able U-turn if they’re in power.

Although it’s the first time the government has admitted the Hybrid Bill wont be through by 2015, it’s not particularly surprising. The Bill is huge and will involve a significant amount of committee time and scrutiny. Supporters of the project are concerned at the lack of progress on the Bill — as David Higgins has pointed out, the longer it takes, the more the costs increase.

The Department for Transport is keen to insist that progress will be made soon, and the Bill will have a second reading by the summer. Unless there is significant progress in the next twelve months, the project will enter into rocky territory. It’s much easier to kill off HS2 when the main piece of legislation underpinning it hasn’t passed.

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