There is a double-edged case against the Government's H2 project, whether one believes in high speed rail or not. If one doesn't believe in it at all, it follows that the £50 billion that will be spent on the plan (or whatever the sum eventually turns out to be) would be better spent on other communications projects – including high speed broadband as well as rail. And if one does believe in high speed rail in principle, it is all arse-about-face to plan the HS2 route first and airport expansion later.
This logic is eating away at business and political support for the scheme. The CBI has said that HS2 needs to "wash its face" after the latest escalation of costs, and Peter Mandelson has suddenly labelled the project "an expensive mistake". Although Labour repeated its support for the scheme after his remarks, it was scarcely likely suddenly to announce a change of view.
Nonetheless, opponents of the project claim that Maria Eagle, the Shadow Transport Secretary, is keenly aware that the plan will do nothing much for Liverpool (where her constituency is), and Ed Balls is bound to have an eye to the costs. In doing so, he is reflecting traditional Treasury caution, which some also claim to detect in George Osborne. Philip Hammond is known to have considered, when Transport Secretary, the merits of a review.
Why, then, is the Government pressing ahead with the plan? I think there are three main reasons.
- David Cameron's personal commitment to HS2. The Prime Minister has bought hook, like and sinker into the Andrew Adonis-inspired logic of building a new line rather than refurbishing an old one – and seems to share with the former Labour Transport Secretary, a tenderness for this grand projet. One critic of the plan told me that in his view HS2 has become a legacy issue for Cameron – and once Prime Ministers have settled on legacy issues, it's very hard to budge them.
- “I am in blood/ Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o'er." In other words, it's relatively easy for a government to commit to a grand scheme such as HS2, but extremely hard for it to escape the commitment. Cancellation would bring with it both an actual and reputational cost. It would also expose the Government to Labour attack, which is especially feared given the third reason, namely –
- HS2 has become a symbol of Conservative commitment to the midlands and north. This may seem strange, since some polls find that the project is no more popular there than elsewhere. But local councils and chambers of commerce near the route are generally for the plan, and cancellation would expose Downing Street to assault from them, too. HS2 will be pushed near the front of some Tory MPs' manifestos in 2015, curious though that may sound.
Furthermore, Cameron will be well aware that the scepticism-to-hostility the scheme arouses elsewhere isn't reflected in the Commons, where Conservative opposition tends to come from MPs who are directly affected by the route (most noticeably in Bucks) and fiscal hawks. There are not many Bucks MPs, and there are fewer fiscal hawks on the Tory benches than one might believe.
Very simply, HS2 isn't research on animals or the Iraq War or same sex marriage: MPs aren't been lobbied by their constituents to vote against it. So they don't. The project will grind on; successive Transport Secretaries will come to the Commons with fresh and bigger estimates of the cost; most MPs will turn a blind eye – and it will stagger its way to completion when we are all even older, unless the courts or Treasury civil servants kill it off first.