Boris Johnson’s decision to proceed with HS2 is one of his most divisive to date. A host of Tory MPs had been lobbying the government to change course in advance of the announcement – there are plenty of critics, too, among the Tory grassroots. Not that the Prime Minister appeared worried when he gave a statement in the Commons this lunchtime confirming the decision. The PM was all smiles as he batted off criticism from his own MPs over the infrastructure project.
Explaining why his Government will proceed with the costly high-speed rail project, Johnson spoke of the need for ambition in government after his Cabinet chose to give HS2 the ‘green signal’:
‘Together this revolution in local and national transport has the potential to be truly transformative for the entire country. We’ve been lacking ambition for far too long.’
Johnson was at pains to link the decision to his Government’s wider plans to ‘level up’ and bring investment to the north and Midlands. He confirmed that phase one – London to Birmingham – would continue work from April, and that phase 2 (a) –Birmingham to Crewe – has also been given the green light. When it comes to part (b) – linking Manchester to Leeds – this is to be reviewed and combined with Northern Powerhouse Rail, which is to be rebranded ‘High Speed North’.
The PM stressed that it was only by making this decision today that the transport revolution would come to the north at the earliest opportunity. To fail to do so, he said, would be to effectively condemn the north to poor transport links. For critics of the project, he also attempted to say this was not business as usual. New scrutiny will be applied to those managing the project and what is expected of them. A new ministerial role will also be created, where a minister’s sole responsibility will be oversight of the project. The announcement coincided with a pledge of new funding for bus routes across the UK. This is intended to appease Tory MPs in constituencies that feel hard done by as a result of the decision.
So what did long-term critics make of the announcement? What was striking from the session is how even vocal opponents of the project sounded resigned to it going ahead. Questions from HS2 critics – including Victoria Prentis and Bill Cash – were focussed more on how to improve the situation slightly than how to stop it entirely. The most hostile question came from Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen, who suggested HS2 would be an ‘albatross around the neck’ of this government.
However, Johnson gave him short shrift, responding that people always question major infrastructure projects – including when the Treasury was opposed to the M25 – but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go ahead. If Johnson’s biggest critic is Bridgen, it’s not a rebellion that will particularly worry No. 10.
For all Johnson’s talk on the need for ambition, there is one infrastructure project the Prime Minister does not sound very keen on. Johnson was asked by an opposition MP if he would take this opportunity to veto a third runway at Heathrow on the grounds that it would damage the environment. He replied:
‘I see no bulldozers at present, nor any prospect of them arriving’.
This is a reference to his previous comments on the project, when the MP for Uxbridge promised his constituents that he would lie in front of the bulldozers to prevent it from going ahead. Johnson’s comments today suggest that the bulldozers will not be arriving anytime in the near future.