You only have to be here for a couple of hours to see that quite a few people at Conservative conference think HS2 is dead in the water. To date, the argument against HS2 has mostly focused on value for money – is it worth spending around £50bn on a high speed railway line at a time of fiscal tightening? Concerns over the political impact the development will have – mainly around the effect on some marginal and safe Conservative seats on the planned route – have largely been secondary.
But that’s all changed since last week’s Labour conference, and the announcement by Shadow chancellor Ed Balls that Labour will formally review the merits of HS2 if they get into office.
With the cross-party political consensus around HS2 under threat the argument against HS2 isn’t a simple economic one any more: it’s become heavily political. Former No. 10 Policy Adviser Sean Worth put this most clearly when he said that he expected Labour, in the run up to the 2015 election, to drop its support for HS2 and pledge instead to spend the money on more immediate, voter-friendly policies (though it’s worth noting that there’s no consensus on what those projects might be, or even if they’d all have to be capital spending projects).
The fear, however, was backed up by a range of activists Keene spoke to, as well as by the likes of the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson and the Taxpayer’s Alliance’s Matthew Sinclair. Most were worried that unless the Tories drop, or at least delay, HS2 the party will be lumbered with a massive infrastructure project that wouldn’t deliver any political benefits for decades. All this in the middle of what many think will be a very close general election campaign.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has already made clear in interviews in the run up to conference that the Government still fully backs HS2, even if future opposition from Labour would make the policy harder to deliver.