Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
Labour’s lead is down to ten per cent! It says something about the state of the Conservative Party that this is considered wonderful news. But what if it’s simply too wonderful? Like a toddler given too much orange squash, isn’t there a risk that our activists might overdose on optimism?
Luckily, Downing Street has prepared for this danger. Thinking ahead, they’ve arranged a cunning act of self-sabotage.
Over the last few weeks, ministers have dropped hint after hint that the Manchester leg of the HS2 project is going to be cancelled. In fact, as of today, the decision is very nearly confirmed. Only a media management strategy of the utmost sophistication could have timed all of this to coincide with the Conservative Party Annual Conference in Manchester.
All those political editors who might have lured Rishi Sunak into articulating an election-winning message, have instead been tricked into asking him questions about a project he’s clearly planning to scrap but can’t quite say so yet. It’s terribly awkward, but the greater peril — that of peaking too soon — has been avoided. Masterful stuff.
That said, if the cancellation is confirmed later this week, then we can expect an almighty clash between past and present Prime Ministers (not unlike this year’s conference). Boris Johnson has already raised the banner for the pro-HS2 resistance. “If we delay or cut the northern legs,” he says in his column for the Daily Mail, “then we are betraying the north of the country and the whole agenda of levelling up.”
But note the plural: northern legs. Though it’s the Manchester leg that’s on the chopping block this week, the Leeds leg was severed back in 2021. Oddly, Johnson neglects to mention that he was Prime Minister when that decision was taken. He was also PM when Northern Powerhouse Rail — a.k.a. the “HS3” link between Leeds and Manchester — was downgraded.
Going back even earlier, there were hopes that HS2 might extend from Manchester to Liverpool and from Manchester to Scotland. But those were dashed too. As the record shows, HS2 has discarded one tantalising prospect after another until almost nothing remains.
Call it the dance of the seven rails: Scotland, gone. Liverpool, gone. HS3, gone. The Leeds leg, gone. The Manchester leg, going soon. And then there’s the sixth rail — i.e. the final few miles of the route into central London. The speculation is that this too is under threat. Unless ministers see sense, HS2 could stop short of Euston and terminate at Old Oak Common. If you’re unacquainted with this glamorous location, it’s sandwiched between Willesden Junction, Kensal Rise Cemetery and Wormwood Scrubs. So with all the major London landmarks right there, who’d want to go any further?
Fortunately, the last of the seven rails — the link from Birmingham to, er, Harlesden, cannot be discarded. That’s because it is well on the way to being built. With tens of billions of pounds already spent, I doubt there’s a way of cancelling this part of the project — though Whitehall may still find a way.
So there you have it: HS2 in all its glory.
Just marvel at it. The national humiliation, The out-of-control budgets. The broken political promises. It really is mind boggling. But what most drives one to despair is the opportunity cost. Instead trying to level-up the land with high street makeovers, we could have put serious money into proper infrastructure.
For instance, we could have fixed the North’s dysfunctional — and frankly embarrassing — rail network. We could have built a tram network for Leeds — the biggest city in Europe without a mass transit system. We could have pioneered driverless buses on dedicated bus lanes to decongest the towns and cities of the Red Wall. We could have finished, or at least started, a hundred projects, levering in further private sector investment when interest rates were still low.
But instead we put all our eggs into one mega-project — and furthermore a mega-project that was first proposed under Gordon Brown. What were we thinking?
If only someone had told the Coalition Government to think again. Delving into the records, I’ve discovered that someone did! It’s all there in the 2014 ConservativeHome manifesto. Here’s the relevant extract:
“There is no reason why the northern conurbation shouldn’t be as well connected as London is. For instance, the distance between Manchester and Leeds is about the same length as the Piccadilly Line. Yet despite the proven success of infrastructure upgrades like the Northern Hub in the Greater Manchester area, Whitehall’s big idea for the North is HS2 – a luxury train to London that won’t even reach the North until 2032 at the earliest, won’t reach certain key cities like Liverpool at all and which won’t provide east-west links across the region.”
The manifesto goes on to propose that the government should “scrap HS2 and re-direct the planned public investment in its entirety to a Northern Infrastructure Fund.”
If only we’d been listened to, but at this stage one can only sigh for what might have been. Well, sigh and relentlessly expose the idiocy that got us into this mess.
Let’s not forget that by 2014, HS2 costs were already escalating and shrinkflation was already setting into the scope of the project. At around the same time, government ministers had also begun to realise that by talking up regional economies (e.g. the Northern Powerhouse) and devolving power, the Conservative Party was getting a hearing in the North again.
The Cameron and May governments should have joined up the dots. They should have cancelled HS2 and used the proceeds to turbo-charge locally-led investment.
So why didn’t they? The ‘clever’ explanation is they were lead astray by the Sunk Costs Fallacy — that is, the very human tendency not to cut one’s losses even when it would be rational to do so. Certainly, we’d have wasted a lot less money if we’d pulled the plug on HS2 in 2014 instead of waiting until 2023.
However, my fear is that the real explanation lies in something altogether more stupid. If one looks at how political decisions are actually made, the suspicion has to be that the people in charge back in 2014 just didn’t care about 2023. That not because they’re personally reckless, but because culture of government — being controlled by press officers and similar types — is focused on the shortest of short-term horizons.
They care about HS2 now because the bills are coming in, but they didn’t care nine years ago, because the escalating costs were tomorrow’s problem. That attitude hasn’t gone away. For instance, just as Sunak is slaughtering one white elephant (i.e. HS2) he’s acting as midwife to another — i.e. Sizewell C nuclear power station.
The two projects have a lot in common — an eleven figure price tag, a decade-plus development schedule, and massive construction risks. And yet, in respect to Sizewell C, HMG is taking a 50 per cent stake in the project. If there are delays and cost overruns — as there have been with Hinkley Point C nuclear power station — then the taxpayer will be on the hook for it.
Even if one regards nuclear as an essential part of our energy mix, it’s obvious that the British state has lost the ability to manage and sensibly regulate a project of this complexity. For instance, despite completing a 44,260 page environmental impact statement, the developers of Sizewell C still lost a court case on the basis that they hadn’t adequately assessed its environmental impact. This sort of regulatory disconnect does not bode well for the future.
Of course, ministers will claim that they’ll deal with any problems, while keeping a firm grip on costs; but after HS2 why would we believe them?