Labour could use HS2 as an opportunity to show voters that it is fiscally responsible by announcing that as the project’s costs have spiralled out of control, it cannot back it. So runs the argument in favour of Ed Miliband dropping his party’s support for the project. The party’s transport shadow Maria Eagle has insisted today that high-speed rail remains a manifesto commitment for Labour, but Ed Balls has appeared on BBC News to drop what many are reading as some fairly heavy hints that his own support isn’t quite so rock-solid.
Here is the transcript of what he said:
‘We have consistently supported plans for a new north-south rail link, but it’s got to work, it has got to be value for money. As Alistair said today, the government’s approach to this has been completely chaotic. He’s drawn one conclusion… I think the best way for me to say that to you Carol is there’s no blank cheque from a Labour treasury for HS2, it’s got to be value for money. If the case is not strong enough, if you don’t see the gains, if as we’ve seen in recent weeks and months, the cost going up and up and up, that’s something which we have to keep under review. Value for money is the test, it’s got to work, there’s no blank cheque. Alistair has drawn one conclusion which is he’s withdrawn his support. We say, let’s keep examining this case. The government has been totally chaotic, they’ve lost control of the costs, and that is a real concern.
There will be no blank cheque from a Labour Treasury for this project or any other project. Public spending has to be disciplined in its control, we have to make sure that every pound is spent wisely, that’s what good governments do, that’s what I will do as the shadow chancellor and as chancellor and that applies to HS2 as much as to any other project. The costs have been spiralling up, they’ve got to get a grip, this has been totally chaotic, there’s no blank cheque, it has got to be value for money, the case has got to be made.’
The first thing worth noting is that Ed Balls clearly arrived at the BBC studios in Leeds, where he conducted the interview, intending to get across the phrase ‘no blank cheque’ because he said it four times. That doesn’t mean he wants to push for Labour to drop its support. It could just mean that he wants to cultivate a hawkish image for Labour on public spending and waste. Either way, Balls clearly scents that this is a political opportunity for his party because the project is getting out of hand, rather than a good sell to Labour’s core vote in the North of England.