Cabinet rows over HS2 expose Theresa May’s vulnerability beyond Brexit

By calling for the high-speed railway to be scrapped, Boris Johnson has exposed the ease with which the cabinet and MPs can be divided on domestic issues.

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Theresa May has no majority in the Commons, and nor, really, does she have one within cabinet. This uncomfortable truth has been especially evident on Brexit. But beneath the conference radar, another policy row is exposing deep divisions at her top table: HS2.

Just about the only thing of consequence Boris Johnson said in his Sunday Times interview yesterday was his demand for the high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham to be scrapped in favour of investment of east-west rail in the North. 

May loyalists in cabinet, chief among them Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and Business Secretary Greg Clark, spent much of yesterday defending the scheme, as did Sajid Javid. But Johnson’s intervention has brought dissenters like Andrea Leadsom back out of the woodwork.

Allies of the Commons leader say she would like to see the project scrapped on the grounds of cost (the amount being spent on HS2 is more than the government’s combined spending on other rail projects), high ministerial and executive staff turnover, the likelihood that its estimated £56bn cost will balloon once the need for spending on station infrastructure is taken into account, and the “pain and disruption” to those living on the route. 

This is an argument that has purchase across sections of the parliamentary party. Is it a co-ordinated push from the Brexiteers in cabinet, or proxy war? Leavers in government resist that interpretation, pointing out that David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister and May’s court Europhile, is also anti-HS2. What it does highlight, however, is the ease with which this already fractious cabinet – and the MPs beneath them – can be divided on domestic issues beyond Brexit. 

This month’s Budget – which is likely to lift the freeze on fuel duty – will expose this incoherence again. The fallout from Johnson’s intervention is a sign of things to come. MPs say the next leader will need to articulate a policy prospectus that goes beyond Brexit. Doing so will only further divide a restive party. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.