Labour aides were keen to emphasise yesterday that the departure of Maria Eagle, a committed supporter of High Speed 2, as shadow transport secretary did not signal any change in the party's position on the project. But it's worth flagging up the first statement from her replacement Mary Creagh
After the Treasury select committee warned that there were "serious shortcomings" in the economic case for HS2 and called for the project to be suspended until they had been addressed, Creagh said:
Labour supports the idea of a new North-South rail link, but under this Government HS2 has been totally mismanaged and the costs have shot up to £50 billion.
David Cameron and George Osborne have made clear they will go full steam ahead with this project whatever the cost. Labour will not take this irresponsible approach. There will be no blank cheque for this project or for any project, because we need to ensure it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country.
The significance of this response is that Creagh has echoed Ed Balls's argument that the funds for the project could potentially be better spent elsewhere. When Balls first made those remarks in his speech to the Labour conference ("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"), some in the party suggested that he had overstepped the mark (with Maria Eagle doing her best to distance herself from Balls in her speech), but his words have now been adopted as party policy.
For Balls, the main 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 remaining within George Osborne's fiscal envelope. Unless the coalition can significantly reduce the projected cost of the project (as Andrew Adonis has urged it to do), it does now seem a question of when, not if, Labour withdraws its support.