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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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