New shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Labour sends Cameron another warning over HS2

New shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh echoes Ed Balls's argument that the £50bn for the project could potentially be better spent elsewhere.

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. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.