In the last few days, the Prime Minister and Chancellor have touring the country trying to extol the virtues of HS2, in seats they believe will benefit from the project to a clearly sceptical public. However what they seem to have missed, is that besides that tactic not working even in the places due to get HS2 stations, is that every time they have mentioned HS2 it seems to have hardened opposition to the project in the areas which bear all the pain, and pushed more and more voters away.
In the past week, we have reported on two incidents where the Conservative leadership have been keen to punt decisions on HS2 which haven’t officially been taken as cast iron guarantees in Crewe and Yorkshire, but yesterday Mr Osborne was rather less gung-ho in Nottinghamshire when the subject of where the proposed station would go came up.
When he was asked if he would end the “blight, misery and uncertainty” for people in Breaston by confirming any station would be built in Toton, he said the “independent” company HS2 Ltd should listen to local people:
“We don’t, rightly, live in a country where really important planning decisions are just made by government ministers without a proper independent process of communities being given a chance to make their argument and their case. Maggie [Throup, the Conservative candidate for Erewash] has done so very strongly about the problems in Breaston and Anna Soubry [the Conservative candidate for Broxtowe] is making her case very strongly for the advantages in Toton. It doesn’t seem a trivial decision but it’s for the independents to make the final call.”
Given his previous willingness to spread ‘good news’ about HS2 in an attempt to win votes, his reticence to do so in this case is rather suspicious, to say the least. The reality is that whether there is meant to be an HS2 station at Crewe, Stoke on Trent or neither, this is a decision not yet officially made which is apparently up to the supposedly ‘Independent’ HS2 Ltd, yet this week he was clear that the decision has been made, and it will be the key marginal of Crewe that gets the station.
It is also the case that whether or not the Leeds-Sheffield line will be ‘fast-tracked’ is again up to HS2 Ltd, that ‘independent’ company which is wholly owned by the Department for Transport, but the day before Mr Cameron was certain it had been decided and is going to happen.
Given this, it is hard not to conclude that the reason Mr Osborne was not willing in this case to pre-empt any announcement about the Nottinghamshire station site, and pass the buck for any such decision onto the not-even-in-the-slightest-little-bit-independent HS2 Ltd, is the fact there is an election coming up. The very last thing he wants to say, knowing it will lose votes in Erewash and mistakenly thinking it will also lose votes in Broxtowe, is that the station is going to Breaston. The bottom line is his position in Nottinghamshire is completely inconsistent with what was his position, just days before, in Cheshire and Yorkshire.
While the Conservatives have sought to fanfare HS2 as a vote winner, it seems they have finally cottoned on to the fact that in certain places, it is not only losing them votes, but losing them votes to a dangerous level in places they never expected it to matter. In 2010 the Conservatives held the Aylesbury constituency with 52% of the vote. It is one of those places where they may well have expected a backlash because of HS2, but due to complete historical dominance, must never have expected to lose enough votes to put the seat under threat. Until now it seems.
The latest ‘NowCast’ from YouGov showed polling a week ago (16th April), put the Tories support in a range with a low of 38%, and UKIP, who polled just 7% in 2010, with a high in their range of 30%, putting them in second place ahead of Labour and the Lib-Dems. Since then, UKIP have put a lot more effort into the seat, and as a result the Tories have decided to take drastic steps.
One of the problems the Conservatives face in their heartlands hit by HS2, where votes have traditionally been weighed instead of counted, is not just a drop in support, but a haemorrhaging of party membership. These members are the people who come election time, parties rely on to display banners, give out leaflets and knock on doors, and without them in a seat where all of a sudden there is a fight on, they have had to call in outside help.
That outside help is coming from the USA, in the guise of the Young Republicans International Committee. As reported in The Guardian, a team of American volunteers will be arriving in the UK on May 2nd to campaign in just three constituencies, one of which is Aylesbury.
Whilst one of the pages on the YRIC website disappeared as soon as The Guardian started making inquiries, the page the paper had linked to in their article has now also been taken down.
However, the invitation from YRIC had read:
“[The] Programme will begin on Saturday 2 May in London, followed by four days of campaigning for Conservative candidates in three different constituencies and a chance to participate in election day itself.”
Maybe, just maybe, if the Conservative leadership had listened to the public about HS2, such desperate measures would not have been needed.