After Ed Balls threatened to withdraw Labour’s support from HS2 and questioned whether the £42.6bn allocated to the project could be better spent elsewhere, shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle’s speech was closely watched to see what line she’d take. Eagle said:
That’s why we support High Speed 2. And, unlike the Tories, no blank cheque for any government project. So, as Ed Balls rightly says: we support the idea of a new north-south rail line but, if costs continue to rise – and the value for money cannot be demonstrated, we will have to ask if this is the right priority for £50bn pounds.
So I say to David Cameron: get a grip on this project. Get a grip on its budget. And get it back on track.
One point immediately worth noting is that Eagle departed from her script to emphasise “we support High Speed 2”, rather than referring euphemistically to the need for “a new north-south rail line”. It’s also significant that she closed the passage by calling for Cameron to “get it back on track”, clearly signalling that she wants the project to succeed.
At a fringe meeting last night, Balls gave every impression of hoping it fails. With a gleam in his eye, he fantasised about how the HS2 budget could be used for “building new homes or new schools or new hospitals”. As the shadow chancellor knows, the latter would be much more popular with the public than the former.
The Tories, unsurprisingly, are making much of the increasingly visible shadow cabinet divisions over the project. Which side comes out on top will likely depend on whether the coalition can prevent the budget from rising again. Should it fail to do so, Balls will argue that Labour has the cover it needs to U-turn. It’s for this reason that, as I wrote earlier, Andrew Adonis, the original architect of HS2, is so desperate for the “incompetent” coalition to prove it can keep costs under control.