Newcastle upon Tyne
Andrew Adonis is not your conventional ‘retired’ politician. The sprightly 50-year-old shadow infrastructure minister remains more influential than his current job title suggests. After running Tony Blair’s policy unit at No. 10, Adonis kick-started the academies programme and paved the way for Michael Gove’s education revolution. Under Gordon Brown he rose to Secretary of State for Transport, where he renationalised the East Coast railway and conceived High Speed 2. Adonis took a central role in Labour’s failed coalition negotiations with the Lib Dems (a party he was once a candidate for) before quitting frontline politics. Today, Adonis is more instrumental to Labour than ever, leading Ed Miliband’s growth review, defending High Speed 2 and academies while reportedly lining up a bid for Mayor of London.
As soon as we sit down for coffee, before he catches the 1359 train to London, Adonis begins by enthusiastically probing if I’ve read his article in this month’s Prospect about London after Boris. Yes I respond — it reads like a detailed job pitch from a senior figure looking to present his vision of London.
‘All I’m doing is contributing to a debate on the policies we are going to need post-Boris,’ Adonis responds. His biggest concern is housing and coping with a population boom. ‘In my view, we need to be bold and conceive not only homes in London but in the areas around London’.
What would Mayor Andrew do differently to Mayor Boris? ‘Boris is a great showman for the city and he is great at selling London abroad. What he is not is a planner. London needs a serious plan. With a projected population of 10 million, the infrastructure is going to be needed to get there.’
What does he make of the other rumoured candidates for the Labour nomination — such as Eddie Izzard, David Lammy and Tessa Jowell? ‘In their own ways they would all be brilliant and any of them would do a decent job’, says Adonis.
But would he accept the Labour nomination, were it forced upon him? ‘It’s two and a half years to the election. I am more concerned with 2015 and I think that needs to take priority at the moment.’ Read into that what you will.
HS2 costs must be curtailed — or it will collapse
When Adonis proposed a new high-speed railway in 2009, both Labour and Conservatives were wildly enthusiastic. But now, politicians of all varieties can’t run away from it fast enough. Adonis admits he ‘completely understands’ why people wouldn’t want a railway cutting through their own area, but is not backing down.
His continued support for the project appears to be at odds with Ed Balls. Following anti-HS2 remarks in his speech at this year’s Labour conference, there were mutterings in Brighton that an angry Lord Adonis had been double-crossed.
The peer tries to dismiss this as simply rumour-mongering. ‘Ed [Balls] is absolutely right to say there is no blank cheque,’ he replies. Did he ask for any reassurances from the shadow chancellor before joining his team?
‘Ed and I are friends and we’ve worked closely over many years, so I don’t need to engage in the game of seeking reassurances with him. Ed and I go back a long time — we were both at Keble College, Oxford together 30 years ago. I suspect just as a large part of our past has been spent together, a good part of our future is going to be too’.
Yet, would he resign if his close friend decided he no longer supports HS2? ‘I don’t answer deeply hypothetical questions,’ he answers with a chuckle. If Adonis agrees with the shadow chancellor on the £50 billion cap and something unexpectedly pushes HS2 above that magic number, would he U-turn? ‘If the costs weren’t under control and they kept escalating, the project would simply collapse’.
The peer remains concerned HS2 may never happen. ‘It’s very important that George Osborne, David Cameron and Patrick McLoughlin don’t fumble this. If they’re serious about HS2, they must bring the Hybrid Bill forward next month. Otherwise the vote won’t happen next year’. A Department of Transport source reassures me the government is still on track to get the legislation passed on time, and the Hybrid Bill will be brought into Parliament by the end of next month.
As for those questioning whether this project really is a good use of money, even if it stays on budget, Adonis says: ‘The idea that this country hangs on further patch–and-mend modernisation of a railway open in the 1830s is pretty alarming’
Labour should support free schools that offer the best proposal
Adonis has a tricky relationship with his party and education. As schools minister, he reimagined Kenneth Baker’s City Technology Colleges as academies, a policy the Conservatives have run with to grant freedom to thousands of schools. But Labour isn’t entirely happy with some of Michael Gove’s Adonis+ reforms, particularly free schools. The new shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt is roughly in favour of them, but only in areas without excess school places. The problem is that if free schools are limited to these areas, there can be no competition between institutions, and no incentive to raise standards.
Adonis recalls Nye Bevan that ‘socialism is the language of priorities’. ‘I’m clear that new schools should only go in areas where there is a need for places. I’m equally clear that we need those schools to have the governance and the leadership to succeed’, he explains but notes ‘where an independent non-state provider can come forward with the best proposal in a locality to run a new school, then they should be supported’.
But he is upbeat about how attitudes in his party have changed over the years. ‘I’m prepared to argue with some of my Labour colleagues about doing what it takes to see that every school has the governance needed to succeed,’ he says. ‘Which is what academies are about, and I’m sure those arguments will continue into the future. Most of the party is now persuaded because the academies are so obviously successful.’
The policy merchant
Adonis has done his bit for trains and schools; for now he’s devoted to the economy. The Adonis Growth Review, due to be published in Spring 2014, will be a key part of Labour’s economic manifesto at the next election. He acknowledges Labour has some way to go on creating a strategy, of any kind. ‘You can only win an argument if you make a good argument, which means we to need to have first rate policies in transport, education, on growth, the future of cities, which is a huge priority in all of these areas.’ Earlier this year, he completed an economic examination of the North East, which was savaged by the area’s Labour MPs.
Once the review is over, will Adonis retire to the House of Lords or take up a front bench role once again? ‘I’m only interested in front bench politics if we’re in government. I have very little interest in mechanisms of oppositions’.
With that, it’s 1357. Adonis zigzags through a traffic jam, dashes across the station concourse and hops onto an East Coast service he nationalised.
Nigel Farage, Matthew Parris, Rory Sutherland and Cheryl Gillan will debate whether the government should ‘Stop HS2!‘ on 31 October 2013 in Westminster. Click here to book tickets.Tags: Andrew Adonis, Coffee House interview, David Lammy, Ed Balls, Eddie Izzard, Free schools, HS2, Kenneth Baker, Lord Adonis, Michael Gove, Nye Bevan, Tessa Jowell