To the surprise of many, Boris Johnson has led the Conservative party to a massive majority in Parliament: giving him the space to enact the legislation proposed in his manifesto.
But what about HS2? The Conservative manifesto said:
HS2 is a great ambition, but will now cost at least £81 billion and will not reach Leeds or Manchester until as late as 2040. We will consider the findings of the Oakervee review into costs and timings and work with leaders of the Midlands and the North to decide the optimal outcome.
As we wrote in November “In essence, there is a policy to put in the manifesto, but absolutely no clarity as to what will happen to HS2 after December 13th.”
They may have won less than a week ago, but there are no doubt people who are looking ahead to the next election, due in 2024 and wondering how the Conservatives can retain the former Labour seats they have just won. And looking at where these seats are, they are in Northern towns like Redcar and Workington and across the Midlands. These aren’t in the cities.
So what will HS2 do for these places: nothing. These are the places where HS2 will suck economic growth away from. These are the places that might benefit from better local trains, from Transpennine links, from better broadband and better buses.
It would be a strong message to these towns if the Conservatives were to cancel HS2 (which serves the cities) and instead do something more local and more necessary to the lives of ordinary people.
Having said that, the Conservative manifesto said a decision on HS2 would be made after the Oakervee report comes out, and there is no timetable for that. Grant Shapps told the Transport Select Committee in October “In terms of timing, we always said autumn which runs up the end of the year. But as budget watchers will recall over the years, autumn can stretch into December.”
There is a chance the report could be sneaked out in the next few days, but this seems unlikely. Our guess is that Boris Johnson won’t want it hidden away. This is especially true as the former Co-chair (installed to ensure balance) is producing his own alternative review into HS2.
So with the size of the majority, Boris Johnson can do whatever he wants with HS2. Our suspicion is that he does actually like it. But we also think he likes having MPs in Northern towns even more, and cancelling HS2 will make keeping those seats more possible.