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Project runway yet 2B decided
You could tell it was a big moment because the prime minister had actually brushed his hair and smartened himself up. And when Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that his cabinet had finally approved the HS2 rail project (or at least the first stage of it), he wore his broadest smile since he won the 2019 election with a landslide.
Despite all the talk of 60 or more Tory rebels opposed to the hugely expensive new London to Birmingham link, in the end there was a mere smattering of criticism from his own benches. And the PM looked as unruffled as those famous blond locks. His line about ‘2B or not 2B’ (the second phase of the plans) not being the question was funny precisely because it was a play on the Hamlet-style dithering and self-doubt that Johnson says afflicted the UK for too long.
I counted around half a dozen backbenchers who expressed unease at the decision, but most of them spoke more in sorrow than anger. Bill Cash spoke of his constituents’ ‘bitter disappointment’, others talked of worries of ‘blight’, but all were focused on how to ameliorate the impact of the HS2 decision rather than halt it. After a decade of campaigning, Victoria Prentis caught the mood by talking about the need to recognise ‘gracious defeat’.
“I didn’t hear a peep of dissent...there were random remarks over how to make it better,” Johnson told broadcasters later. He was in fact referring to the Cabinet meeting that endorsed the rail project, rather than his own backbenches, but it was a handy description of both.
In the chamber itself, Johnson seemed to relish the one real flash of opposition as Andrew Bridgen said HS2 was “unloved and unwanted, and has been grossly mismanaged”. The PM hit back that “every great infrastructure project” faced early opposition by naysayers, citing the Treasury’s unhappiness over everything from the 2012 Olympics to Crossrail. “We have got to have the guts and the foresight to drive it through,” he said. That was a flash of steel that won’t have gone unnoticed by the new intake of MPs.
There was plenty of spin to go with the substance. His new phrase “High Speed North”, an attempt to rebrand the second phase of the project while lumping it together with east-west links in the north, will fool few sceptics. His refusal to say when the second phase would be completed, or whether a parliamentary bill for it will be passed before the next election, was less than reassuring. Issues like the ballooning £106bn cost were waved away with almost airy disdain.
A claim that the extra HS2 capacity will “drive down prices for the consumer” looked like a hostage to fortune. The money for buses was indeed welcome, but as Jeremy Corbyn rightly pointed out, this comes after a decade of Tory bus cuts that slashed routes and led to higher fares. For cyclists, the worst was kept till last: just £350m would be spent on 250 miles of cycle lanes (compared to Andy Burnham building 1,800 miles in Greater Manchester alone).
And yet as the serried ranks of ‘Red Wall’ Tories (it’s still quite something to hear so many northern accents on the government benches) welcomed his announcement, the PM’s grin grew wider. Here was a man as much in control of parliament as he was of his party, the “Brexity Hezza” finally having his own grand projet to rival Michael Heseltine’s Docklands or the M40 motorway extension.
But to my mind the most revealing comments in the entire Commons session today came when Johnson riffed about the merits of not just extra capacity but faster journey times. It’s worth quoting in full this section: “Passengers arriving at Birmingham Airport will be able to get to central London by train in 38 minutes, which compares favourably with the time it takes to get from Heathrow by taxi, a point I just draw to the attention of the House…”
Yes, Birmingham Airport will be as easy to reach from central London as Heathrow. He added that HS2 was “also considerably faster than the Piccadilly line”, a knowing reference to the fact that the Tube journey to the capital’s western airport takes nearly 50 minutes. For good measure, the PM said of a third runway at Heathrow: “I see no bulldozers at present, nor any immediate prospect of them arriving”.
Former infrastructure minister Jim O’Neill let slip earlier today that he used to joke to Mayor Johnson that if HS2 went ahead, he could “forget Heathrow and Gatwick...you could do the airport expansion at Birmingham International” instead. Judging from the PM’s remarks today, that’s not a joke any more, it’s a deadly serious proposition.
It would be a typically Johnsonian solution, to dig himself out of one political hole by digging up the ground somewhere else entirely - and using one long-delayed infrastructure plan to kill off another. If I were the City backers of Heathrow expansion, I’d be extremely worried tonight.
Quote Of The Day
“The 21st century this United Kingdom still has the vision to dream big dreams and the courage to bring those dreams about.”
Boris Johnson on why HS2 is going ahead
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What I’m Reading
Macaulay Culkin Is Not Like You - Esquire
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