Westminster Watch: Politics on the line

Looking at the Conservative leader hopefuls, the high speed train project’s second phase could be in doubt

It will not have escaped your notice that discipline has broken down somewhat in politics, particularly on the Conservative side where the “whip” is frequently ignored completely and Cabinet leaks like a sieve.

We are at historic levels of indiscipline and it is only going to get worse, primarily because we are in the middle of an unofficial Conservative leadership contest.

Theresa May has announced to colleagues that she will stand down at some point and only has until December 2019 until she could be subjected to another vote of No Confidence from MPs (one this time she is highly likely to lose). This was an opening shot for candidates across the party to start gearing up their efforts by giving high-profile speeches, pulling together campaign teams and canvassing for support from MP colleagues.

Speak to most active Conservatives and they’ll tell you that the party membership has changed in the past year and they work on the assumption that the successor to May “must be a Leaver”. This may well be true (most frontrunners are on record as being Leavers or doing their best to seem like it) but there is another issue that is looking like being a defining one in the contest – HS2.

Look at the list of potential contenders and you’ll see a number on record as being against the scheme; Andrea Leadsom (”vanity project”), Jacob Rees-Mogg (“pull the plug”), Boris Johnson (“other projects… ought to take precedence”), Esther McVey (“huge waste of money”). Others, such as Michael Gove, are against it in private and Liz Truss, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury (herself a leadership contender), has indicated that it will be looked at as part of the Spending Review this year.

Consider also the grassroots of the party (and also that the names above are positioning themselves for a membership vote). In 2017 the influential Conservative Home website presented party members with a list of possible Conservative policies and asked them to indicate, on a scale of one to ten, what priority they would give them. HS2 came 34th… out of 34.

The reasons for this dislike are broad – destruction of countryside (unfortunately for HS2 it cuts through a number of constituencies with high-profile MPs), money that could be used for the NHS or spent on local transport projects… or HS3… or east-west links. One thing is clear – very few senior MPs are willing to defend the project publicly.

How terminal is this? Well for Phase 1 maybe not too much. Legislation has been passed for London-Birmingham, contracts signed and some works have begun. But for Phase 2 (to Manchester and Leeds) there could be real challenges ahead.

The legislation for this phase is due to enter Parliament in 2020, but to get to that stage requires political will. Which new PM is going to spend that political capital on a scheme that is so unloved? True, there are many promises made in campaigns that disappear when in office but the voices against the scheme are significant and there is relative silence from potential supporters. Something will need to change for HS2 to be delivered in the way envisaged when it was mooted in 2009. Since then its creators have exited the stage but its opponents are about to take on the main role.

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