Not for the first time, Europe has destroyed another Conservative leader. But will the fallout from the political divide caused by Brexit also bring down HS2, the continent’s largest infrastructure project?
This is a very big question and one which needs to be at the forefront of political and business leaders minds in the Midlands, North and Scotland as we wait to see who the next Prime Minister will be.
For some Conservative MPs, HS2 symbolises George Osborne’s vanity project to create a Northern Powerhouse. Others have simply not bought-in to the significant economic and social benefits that HS2 can bring to the whole of the UK, or point to its cost and environmental impact.
The need to heal the economic and political divide is pikestaff plain. Following the Brexit referendum the Government’s focus on devolution policy has got spectacularly lost. Instead of seeing the clear divisions in politics and across the country, Theresa May ignored the need for democratic and civic renewal, she failed to demonstrate that she was listening and failed to deliver opportunities to left behind areas. Devolution is the solution to tackling regional disparities and in a post-Brexit Britain needs to be placed back at the heart of all Government policy priorities.
Brexit was a cry from the ‘left behind’ regions of England and should have put a rocket boost behind attempts to devolve and decentralise power. As we know, this hasn’t happened and the promise of HS2 is once again in jeopardy.
Our Metro Mayors have been crystal clear, they expect the promise of HS2 to be met. Mayors Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram, and Andy Street have all been vocal in recent weeks, calling for the Government to double-down on its firm pledge to ensure that HS2 goes all the way and connect the cities and towns North of Birmingham.
Of those standing for the Conservative leadership most are unconvinced of the benefits of HS2 and its rising cost. Frontrunner Boris Johnson has declared that he will most likely scrap it (the line is planned to pass through his constituency), whilst Michael Gove and Dominic Raab have declared their scepticism. Of the frontrunners only Jeremy Hunt has declared his support. Matt Hancock is also supportive, but his chances of winning the contest are, arguably, slim.
Perhaps some of the candidates supportive of the scheme could bring weight to cabinet discussions over whether to press ahead, but with a new YouGov poll finding 57% of 120,000 Conservative members oppose the scheme, it may be difficult for those considering future leadership bids to be closely associated with such an unpopular policy.
But for those politicians who hold power in the North, the reappearance of the debate over the future of HS2 causes dismay. Added to the Government’s deafening silence on the Shared Prosperity Fund there is a real sense that the economic and democratic crisis highlighted by Brexit is being ignored simply to cater to the marginal interests of some Conservative MPs. Perhaps it was never any different.
Now, however, there is a real sense of fear that the Government could backtrack on its HS2 promises. We cannot let that happen. HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, as well as Midlands Connect, must all be viewed as one integrated project. The North and Midlands must apply united political pressure on the next Prime Minister. Broken promises won’t rebalance the economy. As the five key council leaders wrote to the Guardian back in March of this year, HS2 is a once-in-two-century chance to rebalance the UK economy. Those of us working in the North must act now and begin to heal the divide.