Update: The plot thickens. A Labour spokesman tells me that the Guardian’s story is “nonsense”, adding “there is no change in position. We support HS2. We will examine the costs and benefits and will not give a blank cheque.”
It looks like David Cameron’s dramatic threat to cancel HS2 if Labour comes out against the project has had its intended effect. After months of uncertainty following Ed Balls’s suggestion that the programme’s £42.6bn budget could be better spent elsewhere, today’s Guardian reports that the party will support the new line if incoming chairman Sir David Higgins is given “a free hand” to reduce costs. Andrew Adonis, the original architect of HS2, who wrote in a recent piece for the NS that cancelling it would be an “act of national self-mutilation” has been drafted in to advise Miliband on Labour’s strategy. Confronted by warnings from northern MPs and council leaders not to play “political games” with a multi-decade national project, the party has stepped back from the brink.
When I spoke Adonis last month, he told me that the current contingency fund of £14.4bn was “too large” and that the cost “needed to come down” when the HS2 bill had its second reading next spring. Labour’s focus will now be on challenging the government to do just, positioning itself to claim victory if and when it does. By taking aim at the spiralling cost of HS2 (“all they’ve done since coming to office is add £10bn to it,” Adonis complained to me), the party is seeking to demonstrate its commitment to fiscal responsibility and to dispel the belief that it believes the answer to every problem lies in spending more.
By reaffirming its support for the project in principle, Labour appears to have abandoned the position expressed by Balls at last month’s party conference, when he openly speculated whether the HS2 money would be better spent on would be “building new homes or new schools or new hospitals”. Earlier this month, the new shadow transport Mary Creagh echoed the shadow chancellor’s words when she warned “we need to ensure it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country.”
But in her response to yesterday’s updated cost-benefit analysis of the project, Creagh was notably less ambiguous, stating that “Labour has always supported HS2 [emphasis mine] because we must address the capacity problems that mean thousands of commuters face cramped, miserable journeys into cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and London. However, we cannot give a Government that is mismanaging this, or any project, a blank cheque. Our message to David Cameron is clear. Get a grip on this project, get control of the budget and get it back on track.”
Rather than risking the blame for killing the project, Labour appears to have decided to take the credit for saving it.