BORIS JOHNSON and his ever-changing policy positions on Brexit have a new rival in the Tory leadership race – Boris Johnson and his mixed messages on HS2.
Already suspected of having more faces than the clock of Big Ben as he tries to woo MPs with Brexit promises ranging from no-deal to a soft exit from the EU, his stance on high-speed rail now appears as unreliable as one of Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s train timetables.
There’s Boris the protester – the MP showing solidarity with residents who are opposing the construction of HS2 through his increasingly marginal Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency after Mr Johnson’s majority was cut in half to a vulnerable 5,034 votes at the last election.
There’s Boris the populist – the former Foreign Secretary won over activists on the eve of last year’s Tory conference with a promise to build a bridge to Ireland and put the HS2 rail line on hold to focus on a high-speed link in the north of England.
Now there’s Boris the pragmatist – the Tory leadership frontrunner conceded this week: “I worry about cancelling a big national project of that scale without anything else to replace it.”
And it is not just HS2 or Brexit where Boris Johnson – the MP most likely to become Britain’s next Prime Minister – remains a man of great political mystery.
The ex-mayor of London, who pledged to lie down in front of the bulldozers to stop the expansion of Heathrow Airport, only expressed lukewarm opposition in the five-way BBC leadership debate. He’s still blustering over calls to give people the legal right to breathe clean air if he becomes PM.
Yet, while it is not Mr Johnson’s fault that the BBC did not ask candidates to explain how they would narrow the North-South divide, the fact that no contender mentioned regional inequalities in response to questions on the economy and tax was astonishing.
Stuck in their London bubble, this omission vindicates the groundbreaking Power Up The North campaign which The Yorkshire Post launched last week with 33 newspapers on behalf of this region’s 15 million residents. They may not have a vote in this contest, but they will have one at the next election and House of Commons data makes grim reading.
In 1979, the Tories won 56 out of 168 seats contested in the North – exactly one third – as Margaret Thatcher was swept to power. In 2017, they returned 40 MPs from 158 constituencies – just over one quarter – as Theresa May lost her majority. And this despite launching her misguided campaign in Halifax.
Yet, as Mrs May scrambles to create a legacy with eye-catching pledges on cutting carbon emissions and mental health, she should go further, make amends to this region and elevate the post of Northern Powerhouse Minister to the Cabinet as one of her last acts.
Why? Though an admission of failure after she allowed the Northern Powerhouse agenda, launched five years ago by George Osborne, the then Chancellor, to be marginalised, it will put down a marker to her successor that they must take this region seriously from the outset. One of Power Up The North’s central demands, it would enable a big-hitter to fight the North’s corner in the Cabinet when decisions are being made on infrastructure investment while pressing ahead with devolving proper policy powers to the regions.
Even Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry concedes this is a good idea – he admits the additional remit given to him by Mrs May does not go far enough – and Tory backbenchers, like York Outer MP Julian Sturdy, have indicated support.
And given Mr Johnson’s propensity for changing his mind depending on the audience – and immediate political circumstances – that he finds himself in, Mrs May is even more honour-bound to act on the North’s behalf.
After all, HS2 – the £56bn high-speed line from London to Leeds and Manchester – is critical if more trains are to run on existing rail routes in the future. They’re already operating at capacity, a point repeatedly overlooked by Mr Johnson and his equally short-sighted acolytes. Yet, just as the M62 would not have been built if it could not have been connected with the M1 and M6 motorways, it is the same with Northern Powerhouse Rail – the proposed £39bn link from Hull to Liverpool.
And while many will contend, understandably, the east-west line should take preference because of the shambolic state of this region’s railways, its business case is depending on using HS2 track infrastructure, and rolling stock, in the North, to limit costs. If not, the final bill will escalate, Whitehall will agonise and a London-focused premier like Boris Johnson will change their mind again and announce that a second Crossrail line across the capital should take preference over the North’s needs.
As such, Mr Johnson’s ‘‘make it up as you go along’’ approach is even more reason why Theresa May needs to act now so the long-term future of the North’s economy is protected from her likely successor’s short-term political calculations that do not bode well here.