An anti-HS2 protest sign. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Show Hide image

White nights in Sweden, the plight of circus animals and the spiralling cost of HS2

In this week's Diary, Stanley Johnson casts his eye from Stockholm to Old Oak Common.

I wrote my first article for the New Statesman at the time of the first great UN environment conference, held in Stockholm in June 1972. In fact, I filed three articles from Sweden in the course of that two-week conference and Tony Howard, the then NS editor, published them all, though he grumbled a bit when my third despatch arrived. “I would have settled for two,” he told me later.

Forty years on, that first world environment conference lives on in my mind. It wasn’t just the substance, it was the setting, too. Stockholm in the summer is stunning. The sun barely sets. Thousands of us – delegates, journalists, NGO activists – walked at midnight through the streets of the Old Town, chanting: “Save the Whale!”

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.

 

Elephant in the room

When is the government going to deliver on its long-standing promise to ban the use of wild animals in circuses?

The government, pleading lack of parliamentary time (!), is in theory backing a private member’s bill, but this has failed to make progress through the Commons after being blocked repeatedly by – guess who? – a Conservative MP, Christopher Chope.

Why doesn’t someone from No 10 or the whips’ office have a quiet word with Chope? The Prime Minister is committed. He told me so personally last year and Lord de Mauley, the Defra minister responsible, has reaffirmed that commitment as recently as 8 January this year.

What on earth is going on?

 

Bathing Adonis

Poor Andrew Adonis, now Baron Adonis of Camden Town, who thought up the High-Speed 2 project in his bath back in 2008 as a shiny new toy to parade in the Labour Party’s 2010 election manifesto, must rue the day he chose that particular title.

The other day I was standing in for David Mellor on LBC’s Ken Livingstone and David Mellor show when the light flashed on the console in front of us: “Martin” of Camden was on the line. “HS2’s plans for Euston will create the biggest construction site in Europe and cause traffic jams for 20 years,” he said. “I would invite Lord Adonis of Camden to apologise to the people of Camden.”

Another light flashed. Lord Adonis himself came on air, not to apologise but to claim that “upgrading the existing Victorian railway would cost as much as building HS2”. Not everyone agrees with the noble Labour lord on this point.

After the LBC broadcast, Chris Stokes, a former executive director of the Strategic Rail Authority, sent me an email: “The claim that upgrading the existing Victorian railway would cost about the same as HS2 is intellectually disreputable.

“The main line out of Euston is just about the least overcrowded route from London and capacity can be increased by lengthening the existing trains at a fraction of the cost of HS2.”

Stokes went on to cite a 2012 report by the renowned engineering consultants W S Atkins, which costed the “upgrading alternative to HS2” he had proposed at between £2bn and £3bn, as opposed to the £50bn-plus cost of HS2.

I can’t help feeling that Philip Rutnam, the permanent secretary at the Department for Transport, may want to take another look at the Atkins report.

 

Lankester bombshell

Rutnam is not only perm sec Transport, he is also the department’s accounting officer. Under the rules issued (or reissued) in July 2013 by Danny Alexander as “Chief Secretary of the Treasury”, the accounting officer has a personal legal responsibility to deliver “value for money”. I happened to be having dinner at a Greek restaurant in Camden Town with Sir Tim Lankester on the day the Commons public accounts committee said it was “sceptical whether the Department [for Transport] can deliver value for money for the taxpayer on High Speed 2”.

Lankester is an old friend. We joined the World Bank together in Washington in the 1960s. He went on to work in the Treasury and at No 10 before becoming permanent secretary at the Overseas Development Administration, now known as the Department for International Development.

As Lankester put it to me that evening: “Value for money is one of the things an accounting officer is personally responsible for – the other main things are regularity and propriety. If he has advised the minister that a particular item of expenditure fails to meet any of these tests, he is required to request a formal direction from the minister before money is spent. In that way, he is absolved from responsibility for the expenditure: it’s entirely the responsibility of the minister.”

Up here in Camden we believe there is one simple way of lopping between £15bn and £20bn off the costs of HS2 (assuming we are saddled with it). And that is for the train to stop at Old Oak Common. The HS2 bill currently before parliament already provides for a new station at Old Oak Common. Transport experts have demonstrated that you can get almost anywhere in London quicker from Old Oak Common than you can from Euston. And the link with HS1 has been cancelled anyway.

 

Nope to the Pope

I went to a bright, sunny Cambridge by train on Saturday 17 January to attend a memorial service for Sir Fred Catherwood.

Catherwood was elected to the European Parliament in 1979. Before that, he had been the director of the National Economic Development Council, or Neddy, a body set up Harold Wilson, ignored by Mrs Thatcher and finally abolished by John Major.

He was also a leading Christian evangelical. When newly elected Conservative MEPs were invited to meet the pope in Rome, Catherwood, as a Baptist Ulsterman, politely declined.

 

Great Brittan

I am sometimes asked whether Sir Leon Brittan was the model for the commissioner in my novel of that name. The answer is “no”. Leon, who died on 21 January, was a lovely man. He and his wife, Diana, could not have been kinder to lowly Brits like me who were working in Brussels at the time. But he wasn’t the basis for my book’s leading character. The dates don’t tally. The Commissioner was first published in 1987: Leon didn’t come to Brussels until 1989. He will be sadly missed by his many friends.

The second volume of Stanley Johnson’s memoir, “Stanley, I Resume: Further Recollections of an Exuberant Life”, is published by Robson Press

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

Getty
Show Hide image

How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496