Andy Burnham caused some ripples earlier this year when he refused to rule out voting against High Speed 2 in an interview with me for the NS (for which he was swiftly slapped down by Ed Miliband's office). He said then: "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 Labour (which backs the project) would have to suspend collective responsibility and allow him to vote against the rail project. "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?'"
With this in mind, I asked a spokesman for Burnham whether the shadow health secretary would be voting in favour of HS2 tonight. He confirmed that he would be, but rightly noted that the vote covers the first phase of the scheme, "which only goes as far as Crewe" and therefore does not extend to Burnham's constituency. It is the vote on the second phase of the project (north of Birmingham), for which a separate bill will be tabled, that will be the real test of his position.
After Ed Balls's threat to withdraw support from the project last year failed to lead to outright opposition, it looks increasingly likely that Labour will continue to back the government. Shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh said yesterday: "Labour is supporting HS2 to cut congestion on the railways, better connect our great cities and help deliver a One Nation economic recovery. HS2 will link and help regenerate our cities in the Midlands and North, get young people into work and help our small businesses to grow.
"The government has finally brought this Bill to Parliament after four years of delays and mismanagement which have caused costs to rise.
"We will continue to hold the government to account for keeping costs down on the project as there can be no blank cheque for this or any other project."