Wednesday 4 October 2023

The Tory Politics of Cancelling HS2

Over the strap line 'Long-term decisions for a brighter future', at the close of his waffling conference speech Rishi Sunak declared that he'd made three mig decisions: the scrapping of HS2 and its replacement by "Network North"; effectively banning smoking by increasing the legal purchase age by a year every year; and announcing the scrapping of A-levels and T-levels and replacing them with the "Advanced British Standard", a new system that will be studied up until the age of 18 - with compulsory English and Maths. Being very much the do-nothing Prime Minister, Sunak has belatedly woken up to the fact that he's got to offer more than wedge issues to stand any hope of re-election. Dressing up as the change candidate as Boris Johnson did four years ago might work if you're a break with what went before, which in some sense Johnson was. But Sunak was not. He was an integral part of that government, and because he oversaw the purse strings its failures are very much his failures. And so he wants to wipe it all away.

Cancelling HS2 was by far the most controversial of his "big decisions". After years of Tory governments stop-starting it, trains from London to Birmingham can expect to glide along sleek, state-of-the-art track in no time at all, before getting shunted onto the dilapidated and delay-prone Brum-Manchester line. I suppose the only saving grace is Stoke-on-Trent won't now have its London service reduced. But, understandably, mayors at both ends of the track are furious. Andy Burnham rightly attacked the decision as the Tories showed, once again, a Westminster-centric disrespect for northern England. When rumours about the axe were circulating, Birmingham's Andy Street said it was tantamount to "cancelling the future". Alas, his anger did not burn bright enough for him to cancel his Tory party membership.

But what about the replacement? Sugar coating the pill, Sunak said the pandemic has meant the nature of work has changed and the business case for HS2 is no longer there. Instead, the monies saved have been promised for "hundreds" of other projects in the North, such as electrifying the Leeds-Hull line, expanding tram networks in several cities, filling potholes in Kent, Suffolk, and Devon (Tory seats now redefined as "the North"), and connecting Manchester's metro to the airport. Which opened in 2014. Should civic leaders in the Midlands and North trust Sunak's promises? Seeing as many projects have got cancelled over the years, and Johnson's talk of levelling up is proven vapourware, anyone believing the Prime Minister's words are probably in the market for a bridge.

This is not just a matter of cost though. Cancelling HS2 and dividing the effort into a series of localised projects destined to become invisible as far as national media is concerned fits everything we know about Sunak's politics. The do-nothing character of his record thus far isn't a personal quirk or a sign of incompetence, it's a strategy geared at lowering expectations. We saw this manifest first in his Jobs Guarantee Scheme (which he singled out in his speech as coming from his conservative values). No sooner was it up and running that he severely limited its scope, refusing to close loopholes for a couple of million self-employed people left without incomes, promoting a pre-vaccine 'return to normal' via the criminally negligent Eat Out to Help Out initiative, and looking to wind furlough down as quickly as he could get away with. Subsequent tensions in the Johnson government, particularly around the failure of levelling up, was part Johnson's lack of interest in detail, and part Sunak's refusing to stump up the money for the government's plans. Saving money was only half of it. The other was to reinforce the view that the state should not be seen doing things, because it raises political expectations. If the state delivers nothing or is bad at providing the services it does offer, the better off will go for private alternatives and people won't make any demands of it. In this sense, Sunak was the right man at the right time for the Tories. Just as the yes campaign in Scotland, Corbynism, Johnson's rash Brexit promises, and the state's temporary nationalisation of the nation's payroll demonstrated the scope and capacity of the state to change things for the better, his time in high office has been devoted to throwing that hope into the trash compactor. Therefore, HS2 never really stood a chance. The arguments about cost overruns and business cases are Sunak's good reasons, but his real reason is a deep seated animosity to the state taking on and completing a huge infrastructure project. Had HS2 continued on his watch, what next? The Eastern leg of the route? More money for rebuilding public buildings? An end to the shuttering of state provided services and, gasp, perhaps the opening of new ones?

HS2 worked against every political instinct Sunak has. Even if it was on course for completion on time and on budget. Therefore, sooner or later, he was always going to come for it. And his speech at Tory conference was as good an occasion as any to announce it.

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Anonymous said...

Grand and evil class warfare schemes are all very well, but does he see this as somehow a vote winner?

Or is he just doing as much irreversible damage as possible before he's shown the door?

This latest wheeze has a whiff of him completely writing off his party's temporary gains in the former Red Wall with a giant "well fuck you, then", and return to a strategy of openly cutting the North off from the country's fiscal arteries and hoping that all the working class bits of it will die quietly.

Kamo said...

The business case for HS2 never really held water. On a cost benefit basis it should never have been started. A lot more bang for the buck could have been achieved by investing in cross country services across the north of England. The problem is large sums have money have now been trousered with very little to show for it. And the UK looks ridiculous because it cannot manage major infrastructure projects on anything like time and budget.

Anonymous said...

Looky here. Labour don't want this to happen until after the GE. I wonder why...?

Presumably it will make Starmer's mob look very bad; and presumably also, once safely in number 10 he will have more leverage to make sure that the court returns his preferred verdict.

Blissex said...

«The business case for HS2 never really held water. On a cost benefit basis it should never have been started.»

Such a naive comment is probably the effect of distractionary media strategies, because there are two big reasons why HS2 *to Birmingham* (more precisely to so-called "Coventry Interchange") made a lot of sense:

* Train lines between Birmingham and London are congested, because they carry both long distance traffic and commuter traffic into London, much of that from the northern reaches of the "Home Counties".

* the victorian liberal way to fix that would have been to price travel between Birmingham and London according to demand, but this would have resulted in massive increases in season tickets for commuters into London.

* Massive increases in seasons tickets would have not only made affluent suburban commuters angry, but also would price out many commuters, so would have made property prices in their communities fall as they would have to move nearer to London or to some other areas.

* HS2 has therefore the primary role to divert long distance travellers off the "East Midlands" and related train services, relieving their congestion and therefore protecting the disposable incomes and property prices of affluent commuters to London.

* HS2 would also have the secondary role, with 1 hour fast service into London, to make the area around "Coventry Interchange" desirable to people commuting to London, providing early buyers with enormous profits from increased land prices, and flooding those areas tory-voting affluent property-owning suburbanites working in London.

Such goals are so worthwhile that big-state intervention and spending are a necessary part of government policy.

«A lot more bang for the buck could have been achieved by investing in cross country services across the north of England.»

Why should the tory voters of southern England pay higher taxes from their hard-waited for property-based gains to make a free gift of better public services to "lazy, overpaid, communist" voters in the north instead of spending the same on longer holiday cruises etc. for themselves? :-)