What HS2 decision reveals about legacy Boris Johnson wants to leave

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Going ahead with HS2 is far easier than cancelling it.

That is the central political reality that has informed Boris Johnson’s big decision today.

A few months back, the prime minister was far less certain about what to do, with one key Downing Street aide telling me: “Publicly he supports it, privately he doesn’t.”

The HS2 costs are eye-watering, with some estimates suggesting they will top £100bn. Swathes of idyllic Tory shires between London and Birmingham will be bulldozed. Added to this, the idea that everyone in the north is desperate for a fast train route is a complete myth.

Many of the new northern Conservative MPs whose electoral success helped destroy Labour’s so-called “red wall” have been the most strident opponents of HS2.

Because unless it stops in or near your constituency, the benefits are negligible.

HS2 will run from London to the West Midlands and then on towards Leeds and Manchester
Image: The route will run from London to Birmingham then be extended to Crewe

Big Labour-run cities like Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester will receive an economic boost. But for the (often Tory) towns in between, the only tangible difference will likely be a lot of homes being demolished.

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Yet even taking all this into account, it is still far easier to plough on.

Boris Johnson admitted to a young Sky journalist last month that if you’re in an HS2-shaped hole, the best option is to “keep digging”.

It is estimated £8bn has already been spent on the project. Contracts have already been signed and wriggling out of them at this late stage would be hugely expensive.

As London mayor, Mr Johnson spent millions of taxpayers’ cash on the now-cancelled “garden bridge” over the River Thames, a rare stain on his largely positive legacy.

He will be keen to avoid getting a reputation for wasting money on ambitious infrastructure ideas that never come to pass.

Central Birmingham is also already a bit of a building site due to early work on the project.

Cancelling HS2 would have left these areas derelict, providing a constant reminder of the prime minister’s lack of ambition, and almost certainly destroying the re-election chances of Conservative West Midlands mayor Andy Street in the process when voters there head to the polls in May.

Plus anyone who has travelled up and down the West Coast mainline knows it is packed with trains, and packed trains at that.

In the next decade the line is expected to reach capacity.

HS2 has been controversial since it was announced
Image: The public may eventually forget the long delays and exorbitant costs

By constructing a second route between London and Birmingham, it will free up the current line to be used for stopping services.

Mr Johnson is also acutely aware that first impressions – and big decisions – count.

He still is a relatively new prime minister at a key turning point in the history of the UK.

His post-Brexit rhetoric is full of themes of ambition, innovation and “levelling up” across the four nations. Shelving HS2 would go against all of that.

As a close observer of the premierships of his predecessors, Mr Johnson realises that he is now at the peak of his political powers. It will only get more difficult to take tough decisions as the months go by.

As the most competitive of politicians, he wants a bigger and better legacy than Theresa May and David Cameron.

By following the path of former French president Francois Mitterand with his “grand projets”, Boris Johnson believes in years to come he will be able to point to successes he started.

And as a student of history, he knows that with all enormous projects – whether it be the Channel Tunnel or the Olympic Park – the public eventually forget the long delays and exorbitant costs. And all that remains is pride.

He hopes HS2 will end up as a great civic triumph – and one he helped make happen.

HS2: What decision reveals about legacy Boris Johnson wants to leave

Going ahead with HS2 is far easier than cancelling it. That is the central political reality that has informed Boris Johnson’s big decision today. A few months back, the prime minister was far less certain about what to do, with one key Downing Street aide telling me: “Publicly he supports it, privately he doesn’t.”

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