Boris Johnson will take on Tory MPs in some of the party’s heartland seats if he gives the green light to HS2.
With his general election landslide built on a promise to “level up” parts of the country that feel they have been ignored by Westminster, the Prime Minister knows he has to commit to major investment in schemes to boost the economy outside London and the South East.
But Tory MPs – especially in constituencies along the route between the capital and Birmingham – have repeatedly hit out at the financial and environmental cost of the project.
The cost of the line could exceed £100 billion according to a leaked Government-commissioned review and it will cut through precious ancient woodland, destroying vital habitats.
However, Mr Johnson’s fondness for ambitious infrastructure projects and support from some of his newly-elected northern Tory MPs is likely to overcome such concerns.
HS2 critic and Lichfield MP Michael Fabricant said the expected decision to go ahead with the line was “disappointing”, arguing that problems with the design of the project meant it would not meet its aims.
“If HS2 goes ahead as planned, we would have missed an opportunity to improve it and make it an integrated high-speed line like they have in continental Europe,” he told the PA news agency.
“In Birmingham, for example, the HS2 arrives at a standalone station so it is not possible to change platforms onto other lines.
“Nor does it connect with Eurostar and the continent.”
These flaws, he said, would prevent it from meeting the “original dream” of being a realistic alternative to flying.
He added that continental high-speed lines mainly used existing transport corridors but “on the whole” HS2 does not.
“Scoring a path through previously undamaged countryside – over 100 ancient woodlands will be damaged or destroyed – and in my own Lichfield constituency the environmental damage will be immense,” he said.
“This is all very disappointing.”
The splits within the Tory party over the project were laid bare when the issue came up at Prime Minister’s Questions in January, with supportive Conservatives jeered by anti-HS2 colleagues as they spoke.
The Prime Minister called in Tory MPs from northern seats to hear their views last week, with politicians giving one-minute pitches setting out why HS2 should or should not go ahead.
Some of the party’s MPs in northern England would prefer local and regional transport schemes to be prioritised over HS2, but Kevin Hollinrake – MP for Thirsk and Malton since 2015 – said it should not be an either/or situation.
Northern Powerhouse rail – linking the cities of the north – should join up with HS2 to create a national network, he said.
“Ultimately we have got to get to a position where the whole country is much better connected,” he said.
"In a hole the size of HS2, the only thing to keep doing is keep digging... It's a big hole."— Sky News (@SkyNews) January 31, 2020
Sky News' @FYI_SkyTV presenter Braydon Bent, who's 10, spoke to @BorisJohnson about the HS2 rail project and Brexit.
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The Cabinet will meet on Tuesday morning to give its verdict, but Chancellor Sajid Javid is already known to broadly support HS2.
The Prime Minister gave an indication of his own views in an interview with 10-year-old Braydon Bent in January – reversing former chancellor Dennis Healey’s “first law of politics” that “when you’re in a hole, stop digging”.
There had been “profligate” and “hopeless” management at HS2 and the situation was a “mess”, Mr Johnson said.
But, he added: “In a hole the size of HS2, the only thing to do is keep digging.”