Why high-speed rail could become one of Osborne's biggest headaches

The Chancellor faces a local revolt over the new route, which passes through his Tatton constituency.

The "engine for growth" was how George Osborne punningly described the government's high-speed rail plans this morning. Ministers are unveiling details of the second phase of the network, which will extend the already-planned London to Birmingham HS2 line to Manchester and Leeds. The Department for Transport estimates that the 250mph line will almost halve journey times between Birmingham and Manchester to 41 minutes and between London and Manchester to one hour and eight minutes. Once the route is complete in 2032, six years after the first phase, it will take 57 minutes to travel from Birmingham to Leeds, compared with one hour and fifty eight minutes at present, and one hour and twenty two minutes to travel from London, compared with two hours and twelve minutes currently. 

Osborne told BBC Breakfast this morning that HS2 would "change the economic geography of this country" and, naturally, "help Britain win the global race". But the £32.7bn project doesn't come without a political price tag attached, as the Chancellor will be well aware. His Tatton constituency is one of those through which the new route will pass and locals in the area,  which includes ancient parkland and National Trust property, are already warning of "resistance like you've never seen before". Conservative Frank Keegan, a ward councillor for Alderley Edge, told the FT that "It could be an enormous issue for [Mr Osborne], a large part of his support is around this area. I don’t see why you should rip up all this countryside and spend £40bn just to take 20 minutes off a journey." He added: "It will be blighting a lot of houses. There would be almighty resistance to that line, [and] it will be resistance like you’ve never seen before."

George Walton, the Conservative mayor of Cheshire East, has voiced similar concerns over the "absolutely massive project".

"There would be ... public outrage if it went across any of our local countryside, which is rich farming land," he said. "We already have the M6 slicing through the area. The route must be properly considered and put to the public first or it will be very problematic from a public acceptance point of view."

In view of the political damage that the project could inflict on the already-beleaguered Chancellor, councils are on the lookout for any attempt to divert the route away from Osborne's constituency. Martin Tett, the leader of the 51M Alliance of councils opposing the scheme, said: "If it avoids most of it, it is George Osborne who will face accusations of nimbyism and hypocrisy."

In response to such protests, ministers have promised "a generous compensation package" for people living near the line as well as noise and other nuisance mitigation measures such as tunnels. But such concessions aside, the government will cite this as evidence of its willingness to take "tough decisions" for growth. 

The Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, who will make a statement on the project to Parliament today, has rightly argued that "while doing nothing would be the easy choice it would also be the irresponsible choice." He said: "This is an unparalleled opportunity to secure a step-change in Britain's competitiveness and this government will do everything possible to ensure that the towns and cities in the Midlands and the north get the connections they need and deserve to thrive". 

But as today's Times reports (£), the Tory revolt against the scheme is gathering force. One figure to watch closely will be the former Welsh Secretary, Cheryl Gillan, who has denounced HS2, which goes through her Chesham and Amersham constituency, as a "terrible" idea. After being sacked from the cabinet by a wine-swilling David Cameron, she commented: "That allows me to almost go back to my roots, if you like, and to speak out about something that is affecting my constituents and my constituency, and that is this terrible HS2 project which the prime minister and my cabinet colleagues have known of my complete opposition to for a long time". The Prime Minister may yet come to regret dismissing Gillan, the likely ringleader of the rebellion, so casually. 

Chancellor George Osborne said that high-speed rail would "change the economic geography of this country". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser