After Ed Balls threatened to withdraw support from High Speed 2 (HS2) last year, Labour has recently moved to a more supportive position, with Ed Miliband recruiting the project's original architect Andrew Adonis to advise him on the issue. During the debate last year on the preparation bill, shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh described Labour as "the true friends of HS2" and declared that "it will fall to the next Labour government – on time and on budget." When asked last month whether both main parties were now committed to the scheme, its chief David Higgins said: "I think so, yes. We’ve certainly got a good line of communication with both sides of the government and the opposition."
But one shadow cabinet minister who retains huge concerns is Andy Burnham. In an interview with me for tomorrow's New Statesman, the shadow health secretary refuses to rule out rebelling against the Labour whip if changes were not made. "It comes right through my constituency [Leigh] and it’s made me look at it in a very hardheaded way," he explained, complaining of an "absolutely massive depot" on what is "currently green space". He added:
I’ve given no guarantees about supporting it. I’m not talking as a frontbencher here, I’m talking as the MP for Leigh. I will not let my constituents carry on paying through their taxes for the rail network when they don’t have reasonable access to it. It’s as simple as that. If the government’s going to lay new railtrack in my constituency, it can bloody well give us a station.
When I asked how he would respond if the government did not meet his demands, he suggested that the party would have to suspend collective responsibility and allow him to vote against HS2.
If they don’t look again at the depot, I’d have to say to my own whips: 'everyone's constituency is going to be affected differently and everyone’s going to have to account. You can’t have a blanket position because it doesn’t affect everybody equally does it?’
Whether the Labour whips would take such an emollient view is doubtful.
For several reasons, the party remains more likely than not to support HS2. The first is that many of its northern and midlands MPs (as well as councillors and trade union leaders) are committed to the project and have warned Miliband that withdrawing support would damage the party's standing in these regions. Indeed, it was their comments in a private meeting that prompted the Labour leader to end the ambiguity over the party's position before the vote last year.
The second is the threat by David Cameron to cancel the project if Labour comes out against it. As he said last year: "It [HS2] does have all-party support. We supported it in opposition when Labour were in Government; Labour support it today, as I understand it, now we are in government; the Liberal Democrat party support it as well. And that is all to the good because these multi-year, multi-parliament infrastructure projects, they can’t go ahead without all-party support – you won’t get the investment, you can’t have the consistency." The abandonment of the project would allow the Tories and the Lib Dems to suggest their own uses for the £50bn budget, reducing the political advantage to Labour.
The third is that, as one senior strategist told me, Labour wants to be seen as a party that champions infrastructure investment (which Balls has left room to borrow for) and cancelling HS2 would send out the wrong signal. In order to display its commitment to fiscal responsibility, it is far better to bear down on current spending.
But Burnham's concerns, which are shared by shadow cabinet members including Balls, Yvette Cooper and Michael Dugher, show the potential for division as the party decides whether to give its final blessing to the project before the general election.