The case for Labour to pledge to scrap HS2 is growing

A promise to cancel the project, which could cost up to £80bn, and invest the savings in more electorally popular policies is just the kind of gamechanger that Miliband needs for the conference season.

Today's Institute of Economic Affairs report suggesting that the cost of High Speed 2 could reach £80bn (it was officially revised up from £30bn to £42.6bn last month) will strengthen the hand of the growing number in Labour who argue that the party should come out against the project. Peter Mandelson (who described it as an "expensive mistake") and John Prescott have both urged Ed Miliband to do so and Alistair Darling (a self-declared "HS2 sceptic") has warned that an "awful lot of things" are wrong with it.

Ed Balls, who recently remarked, "We need to keep a close eye on value for money. I am concerned about the rising costs", is sympathetic to their position. A pledge to cancel HS2 would free up billions for more electorally popular policies (such as a mass house building programme) and reduce the need for higher borrowing and tax rises. It would also split the Tories down the middle, ending what has become a sustained period of Conservative unity.

But Ed Miliband remains personally supportive of the project and HS2 evangelist Andrew Adonis, the party's shadow infrastructure minister, who Miliband recently appointed to lead a growth review, is also determined to prevent any backsliding. However, with his recent pledge to remove winter fuel payments from wealthy pensioners and to introduce an opt-in system for trade union funding, Miliband has shown that he is willing to revise long-standing positions when political conditions demand it. A promise to cancel HS2 and invest the savings in more valuable projects is just the kind of gamechanger that he needs for the conference season.

A placard placed by the Stop HS2 Campaign sits in a hedegrow near to the planned location of the new high speed rail link in Knutsford. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.