Ministers’ attention is now firmly focused on arguing that to abandon HS2 would be a sign that Labour is ‘playing politics with prosperity’, as Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin is set to say later today, or ‘abandoning the North’. Yesterday the Prime Minister slipped in a joke about Ed Balls being absent from the Commons because he was trying to work out what his party’s policy should be on the new line. Today Julian Smith is batting for CCHQ, predicting that ‘if Labour oppose HS2 they’ll be dismissing the long-term future of the country for a short-term political gamble’. As James explained last night, this is all part of an attempt to ‘smoke out’ the Opposition.
Northern business leaders have underlined that ‘abandoning the north’ threat, with a letter from a group of Northern Chambers of Commerce to the Prime Minister urging the government to stick by its plans for HS2 because of the number of jobs the line will create. The letter, which you can read in full here, argues that ‘the debate surrounding HS2 has been hijacked all too often by partisan and opportunistic groups. What has been a healthy scrutiny of an undoubtedly expensive infrastructure project has deteriorated into exaggeration and scare-mongering’. The signatories argue that though ‘not all of our towns, cities or members will be connected to a high speed rail network’, they all support the line because of the ‘ensuing economic uplift this will generate in the North of England’.
The Chambers who sent the letter say it is ‘vital’ that the government ‘re-energises the argument for this scheme’, and this is what McLoughlin is trying to do today.
But while that is important for the Transport Secretary, he and colleagues need to focus on the energy in the Conservative party, too, which is currently driving rebellion rather than loyalty on this matter. As I reported last week, the rebel whipping operation is up and running already. And their aim isn’t just to cause problems for the high-speed rail project itself. One rebel confided that ‘this shows Dave again that he needs to rely on Labour, and can’t rely on us. It makes him look weak’. So it’s another vote about Cameron’s leadership, or so the rebels hope anyway. Yet there are other Tory MPs currently planning to abstain because they simply haven’t heard enough from ministers about the effects of the line on other parts of the country. It’s not just about re-energising the debate to stop Labour pulling out: ministers need to re-energise the Tory party to prevent the rebels achieving their aim of inflating the rebellion even further.
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: High-speed rail, HS2, Patrick McLoughlin, UK politics