Today’s judgments won't derail HS2 - but serious questions remain

High court rules on compensation over HS2.

The Department for Transport will, once again, be in the spotlight today as the High Court gets set to rule on whether the government followed proper procedures before approving its HS2 rail project. Given the recent lamentable procedural failures over rail franchising, tension within the Department will likely be running high.

From the government’s point of view the best outcome is obviously a green light from the court. Not only will this save blushes at the Department, it will allow the coalition to push, full steam ahead – if that is the correct idiom for a project that will not bear fruit until 2033 – with what has become one of its flagship projects.

However, even if the judicial review does come down in favour of the protest groups it is unlikely that HS2 will be halted completely: in rail terms it will receive an amber light rather than a red one.

The protestors no doubt hope that any legal setback to the project will open the way for further challenges which will pull HS2 into a quagmire of reviews and disputes which could carry on until the government finally loses interest or, at least, until the next election is called.

This hope is probably in vain. Given the number of recent setbacks and U-turns the government will be in no mood, or position, to compromise over a scheme it has so solidly thrown its weight behind. Just like the weary commuter, waiting for the train back home after a long day at work, the government will likely accept the delay with resigned determination. This is doubtless helped by the fact that there is widespread support across the political spectrum for HS2. For many on the left it is one of those big infrastructure projects which not only creates jobs and opportunities but also helps to narrow geographical disparities between London and part of the country.

What the outcome of the judicial review will not do is resolve, conclusively, whether HS2 is a sensible idea. Here, so many questions remain unanswered.

There is the argument that the benefits of the spending should be spread more widely. For example, despite commitments on electrification, parts of the rail network in the South West remain chronically deprived of investment. Certainly, dividing the pot of HS2 money up more equally between the regions would produce a less dramatic, less visible end result. However, smaller incremental rail improvements across the country may yield a much greater economic benefit than one big, budget-busting project.

In many ways this is an argument about the need for speed. HS2 will certainly reduce journey times between London and the midlands and parts of the north, however, given the lofty sums of money involved the improvements are marginal at best. Moreover, given the fact that many people use their time on the train fairly productively – whether working or relaxing – there is a real question mark over whether a faster journey accrues genuine economic benefits. The debate is further complicated by the point that without improving regional transport connections – those roads and public transport services which feed into the stations HS2 serves – a reduction of time spent on the train probably becomes pretty pointless.

The one thing HS2 will certainly do is help improve capacity; something much needed on a rail network that is now bursting at the seams. However, HS2 is an expensive solution to this issue and there are simpler ways of increasing capacity. Adjusting the existing infrastructure to accommodate double-decker and longer trains, for example, would cost a fraction of HS2.

The answer to all of these points – and many more – will simply not come from the outcome of today’s review. Nor have they come from government, which has presented a less than compelling case for its policy. Only time and hindsight, it seems, will help us form a view of whether HS2 is a sound scheme. For now, the jury is still out.

The Department for Transport will, once again, be in the spotlight. Photograph: Getty Images

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.