What levels up, must level down – or so seems to be Newton’s third law of Johnsonism this week, as the government’s long-awaited rail plan looks like it’s about to betray the new northern voters who put their faith in the Conservatives to rebalance the economy.
Briefings over the weekend – heroically spun by the Sunday Times – suggested that the Integrated Rail Review (repeatedly subject to delays, fittingly) would be scrapping two projects vital to connecting the north of England: the eastern leg of HS2 between the Midlands and Leeds, and the Northern Powerhouse Rail line between Leeds and Manchester.
Now, the review isn’t out until Thursday (18 November), and government sources have been arguing that the new plans are quicker and cheaper – so the Chatterer will reserve its judgement on the details.
But if readers of the Sunday Times were taken in that these watered down proposals would somehow demonstrate a “rail revolution”, papers in the north certainly weren’t.
In a rare display of unity between northern cities, a number of regional titles today (16 November) coordinated their splashes with a spoof on Trainspotting:
“Choose the North. Choose jobs. Choose to finally keep your rail promises. Choose new train links, shorter journey times and fewer cars on the roads. Choose Northern Powerhouse Rail. Choose HS2 in full. Choose fair transport investment.”
The Manchester Evening News, the north-east’s Chronicle and Journal, the Hull Daily Mail, Teesside’s Gazette, and the Huddersfield Daily Examiner all have identical front pages:
The same day, the Northern Echo‘s splash demands the government “Deliver what you promised”, and the Yorkshire Post’s front page reveals how the “Levelling up agenda is in doubt”:
Even more embarrassingly for the Prime Minister, the last time the Chatterer recalls rival northern titles banding together was in 2019 – with 33 papers and websites cross-promoting their “Power up the North” campaign – Johnson himself was quick to back them.
In one of his early speeches in Manchester after entering No 10 in July 2019, Johnson said he wanted to be “the Prime Minister who does with Northern Powerhouse Rail what we did for Crossrail in London”, and pledged to “fund the Leeds to Manchester route”.
And the Conservative manifesto in 2019 contained the pledge to “build Northern Powerhouse Rail between Leeds and Manchester”.
Talk about signal failures.