Cameron warns Labour: if you oppose HS2, we'll cancel it

After renewed speculation that Labour will come out against the project, the PM warns that it "can't go ahead without all-party support".

The report in today's Sun that Ed Balls has been given the final say over whether Labour supports High Speed 2 has prompted further speculation that the party is preparing to come out against the project. It was Balls who moved to Labour to a more sceptical position when he said in his conference speech that it needed to consider whether it was "the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country".

Interviewed today on 5 Live, he warned: 

If the case is clear, the benefits are strong, it’s the best way to spend the money and the costs are under control, at that point I would be happy to say we’ll support it. But what I am not going to do is say we support it when the costs are rising, the benefits are unclear and the government are acting like cheerleaders rather than proper stewards of public money. That is not a road I am going to go down.

For the shadow chancellor, the attraction of a U-turn on HS2 is that would allow Labour to outspend the Tories in politically vital areas ("building new homes or new schools or new hospitals") while also remaining within George Osborne's fiscal envelope. 

But now, in a dramatic attempt to call Labour's bluff, David Cameron has warned that the project "can't go ahead without all-party support". At a press conference in Brussels he said:

It [HS2] does have all-party support. We supported it in opposition when Labour were in Government; Labour support it today, as I understand it, now we are in government; the Liberal Democrat party support it as well.

And that is all to the good because these multi-year, multi-parliament infrastructure projects, they can’t go ahead without all-party support – you won’t get the investment, you can’t have the consistency.

In other words, if the opposition comes out against HS2, the government will cancel it and pin the blame on Labour (on the basis that a 20-year project can't be sustained without bipartisan support). This would also allow the Tories and the Lib Dems to suggest their own uses for the £50bn budget, reducing the political advantage to Labour. But if Balls and Miliband believe that they would spend the money more wisely than the Tories, Cameron's intervention may not be enough to save HS2. 

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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.