How Labour now plans to claim victory on HS2

Rather than risking the blame for killing the project, Labour has decided to take the credit for saving it by forcing the government to reduce costs.

Update: The plot thickens. A Labour spokesman tells me that the Guardian's story is "nonsense", adding "there is no change in position. We support HS2. We will examine the costs and benefits and will not give a blank cheque." 

It looks like David Cameron's dramatic threat to cancel HS2 if Labour comes out against the project has had its intended effect. After months of uncertainty following Ed Balls's suggestion that the programme's £42.6bn budget could be better spent elsewhere, today's Guardian reports that the party will support the new line if incoming chairman Sir David Higgins is given "a free hand" to reduce costs. Andrew Adonis, the original architect of HS2, who wrote in a recent piece for the NS that cancelling it would be an "act of national self-mutilation" has been drafted in to advise Miliband on Labour's strategy. Confronted by warnings from northern MPs and council leaders not to play "political games" with a multi-decade national project, the party has stepped back from the brink.

When I spoke Adonis last month, he told me that the current contingency fund of £14.4bn was "too large" and that the cost "needed to come down" when the HS2 bill had its second reading next spring. Labour's focus will now be on challenging the government to do just, positioning itself to claim victory if and when it does. By taking aim at the spiralling cost of HS2 ("all they've done since coming to office is add £10bn to it," Adonis complained to me), the party is seeking to demonstrate its commitment to fiscal responsibility and to dispel the belief that it believes the answer to every problem lies in spending more.

By reaffirming its support for the project in principle, Labour appears to have abandoned the position expressed by Balls at last month's party conference, when he openly speculated whether the HS2 money would be better spent on would be "building new homes or new schools or new hospitals". Earlier this month, the new shadow transport Mary Creagh echoed the shadow chancellor's words when she warned "we need to ensure it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country."

But in her response to yesterday's updated cost-benefit analysis of the project, Creagh was notably less ambiguous, stating that "Labour has always supported HS2 [emphasis mine] because we must address the capacity problems that mean thousands of commuters face cramped, miserable journeys into cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and London. However, we cannot give a Government that is mismanaging this, or any project, a blank cheque. Our message to David Cameron is clear. Get a grip on this project, get control of the budget and get it back on track." 

Rather than risking the blame for killing the project, Labour appears to have decided to take the credit for saving it.

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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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