Balls's threat to abandon support for HS2 sets him up for war with Adonis

Andrew Adonis, the head of Labour's growth review and the architect of the project, has warned that cancelling the programme would be an "act of national self-mutilation".

The most significant line in Ed Balls's speech to the Labour conference was on HS2. Having previously warned that there would be no "blank cheque" from his party for the new high-speed line, he went further today, questioning whether it was "the best way to spend £50bn for the future of our country".

Balls said:

Under this government the High Speed 2 project has been totally mismanaged and the costs have shot up to £50bn. David Cameron and George Osborne have made clear they will go full steam ahead with this project – no matter how much the costs spiral up and up. They seem willing to put their own pride and vanity above best value for money for the taxpayer.

Labour will not take this irresponsible approach. So let me be clear, in tough times – when there is less money around and a big deficit to get down – there will be no blank cheque from me as a Labour chancellor for this project or for any project.

Because the question is – not just whether a new high-speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50bn for the future of our country. In tough times it's even more important that all our policies and commitments are properly costed and funded.

The signal from Balls that Labour is actively considering withdrawing support from the project raises the possibility of a major party split over the issue. Andrew Adonis, the former transport secretary and the architect of HS2, recently argued in the New Statesman that it would be an "act of national self-mutilation" to cancel the programme. As the party's shadow infrastructure minister and the head of the party's growth review, he remains a significant figure and would likely have to resign his post if Labour came out against the project.

In his piece, Adonis warned that the urgent need to increase rail capacity (the West Coast Main Line will be full by 2024) meant there was "no free lunch - or pot of gold which can be diverted to other projects in anything but the very short-term, with more costly consequences thereafter". But many in Labour would like to transfer funds from HS2 to a mass housebuilding programme. It would allow the party to differentiate itself from the Tories while remaining within George Osborne's fiscal envelope. Today, Balls made it clear that he is sympathetic to their demands.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.