Ever since Boris Johnson won a majority of 80 in the December snap election, the Conservative benches have been a place of unity and happiness. It’s far removed from the past year of infighting and blue on blue attacks. However, today cracks began to emerge as an issue came to the fore which divides Conservative opinion: HS2.
A leaked copy of the HS2 report the government commissioned has made its way to the Financial Times. The report cautiously paves the way for the project to be green lit when the review ends. However, it also carries numerous warnings about the spiralling costs of the project and raises questions over the value the second stage of the infrastructure would offer. The review – as published today – is suitably on the fence that it leaves the government with space to pick either side – yes or no.
As a result of that, Conservative MPs have today swung into action in a bid to pressure the government to agree to their preferred outcome. The issue is that there is no consensus on what that is. Tory MPs are working on two separate letters. Conservative MPs in favour of HS2 say they have around 30 signatures for a letter calling for the project to go ahead. Meanwhile, the anti-HS2 camp have mustered closer to 20 supporters against the project. The size of Johnson’s majority means that at present neither side has the ability to thwart the government’s plans. Instead it’s down to political pressure – who is the most important to please when it comes to keeping the party’s new voters in the North and Midlands.
Which side will face the biggest backlash if they don’t get their preferred result? While there are constituents likely to grow annoyed at spiralling costs if the project goes ahead, a more direct grievance will be those constituents counting on it coming to their area (should the government scrap the project, to ease any such grievances Johnson will need to offer other ways to increase connectivity across the UK). Were there to be a year in which the Tories were prepared to upset quite a few people it is this one. The view among several senior cabinet ministers is that this year is so early in the government term that it is Johnson’s best opportunity to make difficult decisions and then bring both MPs and voters back on board in the years that follow.
What is complicating things, however, is that the election for West Midlands mayor is this year. The sitting Tory mayor Andy Street is a passionate supporter of HS2 and he only won narrowly last time. Were the Conservative to lose the West Midlands mayoralty within a year of what is supposed to be a transformative government levelling up it would be a bad look.