In what amounts to an abuse of democracy, lobbyists are being used to put the case for an absurd project few really want.
The government’s project for a new high-speed railway from Birmingham to London Euston is entering a critical phase. This has nothing to do with trains but everything to do with tribes.
Last week there were unconfirmed reports that the government may abandon the link between the proposed HS2 terminus at Euston and Eurostar’s HS1 down the road at St Pancras.
The link solved a serious and obvious defect in HS2 – that it could not network with trains leaving for Europe from St Pancras. The ideas was for trains to snake from Euston to St Pancras along part of the existing London Overground viaduct, which was like sending a bullet train down the Bluebell line.
Its cancellation is understandable, saving on both cost and furious local opposition. But the defect in HS2’s rationale will return.
Meanwhile HS2’s new boss, Sir David Higgins, significantly gave his first interview last month not at Euston but at Old Oak Common in west London, overlooking Wormwood Scrubs.
It is no secret that driving trains from the west through Primrose Hill into Euston could cost upwards of £10bn. It also raises the prospect of Euston station and Camden Town suffering a decade of utter chaos.
If Higgins has in fact got this point, he could stop HS2 north of Acton where it joins Crossrail at Old Oak Common, called by Boris Johnson the future “Canary Wharf of the West.” Euston is not even on Crossrail.
These are merely straws in this daftest of winds. What is undeniable is that the HS2 debate has turned on its head in the past six months. When selling it was left to consultants such as Atkins and KPMG, it was dire. Ridicule was heaped on spending £50bn to save a handful of first-class travellers 20 minutes of comfortable journey from Birmingham.
Whitehall’s HS2 directorate duly turned for help to political lobbyists Westbourne Communications, led by Tory networkers Stephan Shakespeare and Lord Bethell.
What happened next is described in A Quiet Word by Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell, in which they chart the devastating rise in the power of political lobbyists over modern British government.
Overnight, HS2 was “reframed”. The project was no longer about value for money or even transport. It was a matter of vision, confidence and beating the Chinese. Another Olympic Games.
All talk of HS2 journey times was banned, as indeed was talk of speed itself. HS2 was to be about “the north, jobs and growth.” Northerners were to plead with their civic leaders to back HS2 for their salvation.
Westbourne refashioned the whole project as if it were working-class northern renewal against Chiltern nimbys: “Your lawns or our jobs.” The technique is known as “astroturfing”, orchestrating the appearance of a genuine surge in feeling from the grassroots.
Nick Clegg was duly quoted as reciting that HS2 was about “healing the north-south divide.”
George Osborne described it as “the engine for growth in the north.”
David Cameron declared it vital to “win the global race.”
There was no (impartial) evidence for any of this, as the Commons public accounts committee was brave enough to say.
But on it went. Westbourne was undaunted. It deployed the lobbyist’s Doomsday weapon, with Euston said to be “in crisis”, with “capacity issues” and a need for “18 new pathways”, a line recited by Higgins whenever asked.
(In fact Euston does not even get into the top 10 of most crowded services: Paddington and Waterloo are far worse.) The idea that children would spill on to the tracks for want of any HS2 was a classic of what Bethell calls “[expletive] them up”, a lobbying tactic described by Anna Minton in her Spinwatch report as “scare the living daylights out of people”.
There has long been a faction in Whitehall eager to engineer this project off the rails.
Brief hope lay with the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls. He had implied that £50bn was a crazy amount of capital to tie up in one glamour project.
At last October’s party conference, Cameron challenged him to support it or see it cancelled. Some observers wondered if he actually hoped Balls would refuse.
Balls was lobbied out of his brain by Westbourne. The tactic was pressure from north-country Labour leaders on Ed Miliband. Miliband capitulated and Balls chickened out. He said merely there was “no blank cheque” for HS2 over £50bn.
With the project already costing millions and soon unstoppable, he knew that was a green light. It was Labour at its big-spending worst.
HS2 is a classic of the “consistency principle.” A political decision that is at first finely balanced becomes immutable dogma thereafter. The tribe forms into a baggage train, with attendant consultants, lobbyists, journalists and “experts”, all of them “on message” and most with money at stake. They become motivated not by the right thing to do but by loyalty, a good headline, an opponent crushed and, above all, the “impossibility of a U-turn.”
That money should be spent by government on consultants to scare every taxpayer to spend £1,500, just to avoid politicians having to change their minds, must be an abuse of democracy.
As Cave and Rowell relate, it is happening across Whitehall, from transport to schools to defence to health to housing. Sometimes business lobbies government, sometimes, as with HS2 government lobbies itself.
The project’s latest cost-benefit ratio hovers between 1:1.4 and 1:1.2, which is close to worthless. This compares with over 1:8 required for spending on flood defences.
It’s possible that a future chancellor will have more guts than either Osborne or Balls and cancel it.
It may be HS2 never gets beyond Old Oak Common. It may be that other lines are upgraded to supply new pathways, as to the Midlands from Marylebone, but at a fraction the cost. Or a different, more sensible, high-speed line could be built to go down the east coast from Scotland and Yorkshire to link direct into HS1 and France. Anything makes more sense than HS2.
But as long as the tribe is heading in the other direction, nothing will change. The whirling dervishes are doing what they are paid to do, lobby wherever the money leads.
Cameron once called these people “the next big scandal waiting to happen.” The scandal is that he is paying them.
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