Osborne will announce a need for new high-speed rail: what are the political implications?

The chancellor will announce today his idea for a new high-speed rail in the north of England to unite nothern cities. It's a strategic move for the Tories, while Labour still seems to be prevaricating over HS2.

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Fast trains and non-existent airport runways have been the preoccupation and often the cause of acute travel sickness for transport ministers and others throughout this coalition. It’s these big infrastructure project proposals that bring governments such grief, not just for their financial implications, but also because they are plans that the public grasps quickly, and often passionately. A high-speed train zooming through nearby fields, or poised to revolutionise one’s commute, is something very tangible that voters have to associate with their government, and brings home how their government's policies can affect their daily lives.

This is why the chancellor’s announcement later today, in a speech in Manchester, that there will be a need for a new high-speed rail link in the north, is a good move. In the final stretch of parliament before the general election, with a so-called “Zombie Government” legislating on very little, it’s a clever tactic to begin announcing a long-term project like this, which actually requires very little commitment because it would be contingent on so many factors (what the next government will decide, how these plans will be funded, etc), but sounds substantial.

The chancellor is expected to argue that we need a “northern powerhouse”, as London’s dominance is “not healthy” for our economy. He will propose that the second phase of HS2 should speed up services between Manchester and Leeds:

“I want us to start thinking about whether to build a new high-speed rail connection east-west from Manchester to Leeds.”

This kind of speech is an electorally strategic one, because it addresses – however superficially – the economic and social London bias that has been the subject of a great deal of chatter in recent times. It’s also clear that Osborne is talking to northern voters; the Tories’ popularity in the north of England has been declining.

In an interview on the Today programme just now, Osborne not only argued for this new rail plan, but spoke more broadly about “strong city leadership”, arguing that there is a “strong case for elected mayors in places like Greater Manchester”, to have the “same clout” as London’s mayoralty and have “powers over planning, housing and transport”.

When asked how substantial these plans are so far, he replied, “I want to start a conversation”, suggesting they are still in the ideas phase.

This train of thought may be most useful for the Tories because of Labour’s equivocation over the original HS2 plans. Although there is broadly cross-party agreement that the first phase should go ahead, Labour significantly cooled its enthusiasm for the plan over its party conference last year. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls began the now much-parroted “no blank cheque” messaging, leading to many Labour frontbenchers saying the rising costs of the project were making them apprehensive about committing to the plan.

Although Labour has officially supported the line, which shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh confirmed in April, saying it will "improve connections between the North and South", she still repeated that there would be "no blank cheque", and memories of the party's lukewarm support remain fresh.

When I interviewed Creagh in March for Total Politics magazine, she even admitted to me that the shadow cabinet hadn’t even discussed the project at least since the beginning of October 2013:

“If I’m honest, we haven’t discussed it in shadow cabinet since I’ve had the brief.”

And in an exclusive interview with the New Statesman earlier this year, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham revealed he may defy the whip to oppose HS2, as it runs through his constituency of Leigh.

So with divisions and reticence lingering within the shadow cabinet on HS2, it doesn’t look good for the Labour Party that the Conservatives are already taking the plans even further – right onto their lawns in the north of England.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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