Amid all the whispering and jostling for position ahead of the expected leadership election – whenever it might come – it’s fascinating to see which particular topics are apparently being raised, and by which candidates. Brexit, of course, is the backdrop to just about everything at the moment, but one detail caught my eye in the weekend’s newspapers.
The eminently well-informed Tim Shipman recounted a visitation bestowed by Michael Gove upon a group of MPs recently. As they dined,
‘The environment secretary sat down and began asking them leading questions about the future of the party. “He was blatantly fishing,” one said. “He asked, ‘How would you feel if we just dropped HS2 and spent the money on local transport links in the Midlands and the north?’’
It would be very un-Gove-like to choose the topic of such a conversation at random. He evidently has a reason for choosing to float the question of ditching HS2 and spending the money on transport in the Midlands and the North.
The fact that ConservativeHome’s 2014 manifesto proposed precisely this course of action is no doubt compelling, but wouldn’t explain why it has come up as a Gove line of choice now. I understand that he has recently had sight of private polling which suggests that such a policy would be very popular.
The political context certainly recommends it.
Abandoning the project would be one of relatively few possible ways to free up seriously large amounts of money – and, sadly, Conservative MPs have begun to indulge in dreams of the easy popularity to be bought by promising to spend. If one wished to do so without raising taxes, or sought at least to limit tax rises while increasing spending, then reallocating HS2’s budget would be one option.
Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that the rail chaos afflicting large parts of the country still has not ended. As I wrote at the start of June, the problems are damaging to a degree which I suspect many in Westminster simply have not realised, and particular affect commuters, whom you might expect the Conservative Party to want to appeal to. After financial, personal and professional cost, often for weeks on end, plenty of people are already of the view that fixing rail infrastructure in the north and the Midlands is a priority well above a soon-to-be obsolete ‘high speed’ link to London.
We don’t know when there’ll be a leadership race, or who will win it when it comes (though our survey gives some hints today). What is interesting in itself are the issues and policies that those who seek to compete in are sounding out.