Manchester could become part of George Osborne's vision of a "northern powerhouse". Photo: Getty
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The politics behind government backing for HS3

David Cameron and George Osborne have given joint support for proposals to improve services across the Pennines.

There’s no route, no timetable agreed for building it, and no plan for how the money for it will be committed. These are the almost inevitable credentials of the follow-up project to the existing financial and political minefield, HS2, proposed this week by the original project’s chief, Sir David Higgins.

The government has given full backing to plans for “HS3”, which would bring new rail links in the north of England, improving services across the Pennines, especially shortening journey times between Manchester and Leeds.

David Cameron is backing the plan for HS3, and the government has agreed to produce a strategy looking at the options for delivering such a project. An interim report will be produced in March.

Why, when the controversial HS2 itself is yet to find its feet, is the government supporting an uncosted follow-up infrastructure project that even Higgins himself admitted is just “the start of a conversation” on the BBC’s Today programme this morning?

Although he tried to underplay HS3 as a big, HS2-style, project by saying it’s “not just a single project” and would rather tackle challenges in the north involving “rolling stock, electrification, port challenges, freight blockages”, the BBC is reporting that it could be more expensive than HS2.

The reason is political. At the start of the summer, George Osborne was talking a great deal about creating a “northern powerhouse” with a new high-speed rail project, and the word around Westminster is that his plans for infrastructure projects in the north of England will feature in the Autumn Statement this year.

However, it’s not just about wooing northern voters. There is also an element of coalition rivalry here. During their party conference, when they weren’t coyly espousing the radical nature of staunch centrism, the Lib Dems’ positive case for remaining in government was dominated by a commitment to infrastructure plans. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, at a fringe event, gave a hint that he was looking for new proposals in the Autumn Statement that would make further “progress” on infrastructure spending.

So HS3 is not just a case of the government trying to outplay Labour in empowering northern cities. It’s about whether the Tories or the Lib Dems can gain the most ground by promising the most attractive-sounding infrastructure plans for the voter base residing in those cities. Even if these are at present more dreams than plans.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.