Cameron's concession to Labour on HS2 costs

After ministers previously pledged to deliver the new line "on budget", the PM now promises that it will come in "under budget".

After HS2 avoided derailment last week, David Cameron used his speech to the CBI to reaffirm the case for the new line, accusing Labour of "playing politics with Britain’s prosperity" and "betraying everyone north of Watford" by refusing to commit to the project.

But his address also contained a significant concession to the opposition. After Labour signalled that its support for the line was conditional on HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins being given "a free hand" to reduce costs, Cameron said:

Britain has shown it can build great infrastructure like HS1 or the Olympics on time and on budget. And with Sir David Higgins in charge - the man who built the Olympics - we will do that for the north-south line too. He has agreed that the first vital step will be to bring his penetrating eye and expertise to a specific task. To report on the costs [emphasis mine]. And to maximise the benefits for all parts of the country as quickly as possible. He has already said the line could come in 'substantially' under the current budget. And he has also made it clear he needs cross-party support to do it.

The PM later emphasised that he wants HS2 to come in "under budget". That contrasts with the previous commitment from ministers to merely deliver the project "on budget", a notable shift in rhetoric that Labour is rightly chalking up as a victory. 

In his own speech to the CBI, Ed Balls again warned that there was no "blank cheque" for the HS2 but also emphasised that the party would continue to scrutinise "the benefits" (rather than merely the costs) of the scheme to "ensure this is the best way to spend £50bn for the future of our country". 

The shadow chancellor's warning that the money could potentially be better spent elsewhere (first made in his conference speech) is a sign that the party's stance hasn't softened as much as some have suggested. 

David Cameron addresses delegates at the CBI conference in London this morning. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Sleepy Zac is too laid-back

Lucy Allan's "threat", Clean for the Queen and the case of the invisible frontbencher.

After six years as a minister for Europe, David Lidington’s profile remains low. But the invisible frontbencher might be useful in a pub quiz, if not a referendum. A Tory snout muttered that David Who? has been boasting that he can name 20 of the 28 European commissioners currently parked in Brussels.

Lidington admitted that he will be history, should the UK decide to quit the EU. “If Britain voted to leave,” he nervously told a Tory gathering, “I think I’d let somebody else have a go in this job.” David Cameron is presumably thinking the same thing. Incidentally, can anybody name Britain’s EU commissioner?

“I wanted to get in touch to let you know about a fantastic initiative to help clean up the UK in advance of HM the Queen’s 90th birthday,” trilled the Banbury Tory Victoria Prentis in an email to fellow MPs. “‘Clean for the Queen’ brings together all the anti-litter organisations from the UK and aims to get people involved in the largest community-inspired action against litter . . . I will also be holding a drop-in photo opportunity . . . We will have posters, litter bags and T-shirts. Please do come along.” I await the formation of a breakaway group: “Republicans for Rubbish”.

Tory colleagues are advising Zac Goldsmith, I hear, to invest a slice of his inherited £300m fortune in speaking lessons to help him stop sounding so disinterested. Laid-Back Zac appears to lull himself to sleep on public platforms and on TV. My informant whispered that cheeky Tory MPs have been cooking up a slogan – “Goldsmith: head and shoulders above Labour” – ahead of the tall, rich kid’s tussle with the pocket battleship Sadiq Khan to become the mayor of London.

The Telford Tory Lucy Allan has finally received help after inserting the words “Unless you die” into a constituent’s email that she posted on Facebook, presumably to present herself as the victim of a non-existent death threat. Allan has since become embroiled in accusations of bullying a sick staffer. “The House has offered me a three-hour media training session,” the fantasist said in an email to colleagues. “There are two extra slots available . . .” How much will this cost us?

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when the Injustice Secretary, Michael Gove, shared a drink with Chris Grayling and informed his predecessor that prisons would be the next piece of his legacy to be reversed. Chris “the Jackal” Grayling, by the way, is complaining that Gove’s spads are rubbishing him. And with good reason.

The Tory lobbyist Baron Hill of Oareford is the UK’s chap at the European Commission. He puts the margin into marginalised at the Berlaymont.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle