Andrew Bridgen is MP for North West Leicestershire
Nearly four months ago, I wrote an article for Conservative Home following an intervention into the HS2 debate by Lord Mandelson in which he stated that HS2 could be an expensive mistake. I warned at the time that Labour could shoot the Government’s fox – or rather, its white elephant, HS2. Following it, and as predicted, Ed Balls has looked at the projected £50 billion cost and has seen an opportunity for a war chest to fund Labour’s spending plans at the next election. Consider this fact: Labour without money to spend is nothing. With Balls making all kinds spending pledges and wanting these verified by the OBR, the turn of events points to him pulling back from HS2. And, as I write this, reports now state that it will indeed be Balls who gets the final say on HS2 for Labour.
I also stated in that article that although Maria Eagle (the then Shadow Transport Secretary) was wholly committed to the HS2 project, she was only one reshuffle away from Labour being in a position to cancel HS2. Four months down the line, Maria Eagle has indeed gone and Mary Creagh, the new shadow Transport Secretary, has said she will launch a review of the party’s railway policy within a year. That’s enough time to let our party become committed beyond the point of no return – and for Ed Balls to spring £50 billion of spending pledges from the saving of cancelling HS2. After all, Lord Mandelson has stated that Labour’s backing for HS2 was only to upstage the Conservatives, prior to the next election.
I am presently canvassing opinion within the Conservative Parliamentary Party, and have found dozens of colleagues against the scheme, plus many who are at best agnostic. The arguments that have been put forward in favour of the scheme have been evasive – for example, the recent KPMG report commissioned by the Government was widely criticised as being one-sided and unconvincing and not using ‘mainstream’ methodology, as well as ‘making a host of other questionable assumptions.’
So where does this leave us? We are standing on the track and the train is approaching. We can see it, but will we move out of the way. This Thursday, the remaining stages of the HS2 Paving Bill will be debated and voted on. Labour will not vote against it, as they want to keep us on the leash and know enough Conservatives are against the project to vote it down if they fail to support the Government. Even considering this, though, Labour’s lack of commitment has been demonstrated by the fact that they are on a one line whip. The fight will then move onto the Hybrid Bill.
There are more than enough question marks about this project and its cost to agree with the finding of the Treasury Select Committee that more proof is needed that HS2 would be value for money, and that there should be a formal reappraisal of the plan. With the blinkered obsession that HS2 is the answer to our country’s infrastructure issues, there is the feeling that alternative schemes on how best to spend £50 billion of taxpayers’ money have not been considered. The scheme should therefore be put on hold while this reappraisal takes place.
If we don’t do this, then Ed Balls will – and our party will feel the full force of being metaphorically ‘hit by a High Speed Train’ at the next general election.