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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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.