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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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