'It's a high-speed high-risk strategy'

Alstom's proposed design for a HS2 train Image copyright Alstom
Image caption The first passengers are expected to travel on HS2 trains between Birmingham and London in late 2026

It was one of those routine stumbles in the crucible that is the Sunday Politics Midlands studio. Normally I'd do my best to shrug it off.

I had mangled my words during an interview about high-speed rail after Jeremy Hunt, in Worcestershire on the first day of his regional leadership campaign, had told us he was "a supporter, a very strong supporter, of HS2... because whoever becomes prime minister must govern for the country as a whole".

Given that the 165,000 or so Conservative Party members who are deciding this election include so many in counties like Warwickshire and Staffordshire which are set to experience so more of the "pain" than the "gain", I had intended to describe the self-professed underdog's pronouncement as simply "a high-risk strategy".

And yet the accidental addition of "high-speed" had fortuitously produced something quite appropriate!

Jeremy Hunt also pointed out, in that Friday morning interview at a factory just outside Kidderminster, that his opponent "wants to scrap HS2".

Boris Johnson certainly said as much in one of his Daily Telegraph columns.

Now though, in the future prime minister spotlight, his position has become more nuanced. If, or when, he wins he says he will order a review - before adding that HS2 could still be scrapped by Christmas.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The next prime minister is set to be revealed on 23 July

No less menacingly in the opinion of HS2's supporters, during last week's ITV Our Next Prime Minister debate he quoted, uncontested, the £100bn price tag. That's the figure favoured by the the project's arch critics who warn the evidence points towards deal-breaking cost overruns.

But the official figure remains just a little over half that headline-grabbing number.

An example, perhaps, of political rhetoric that's calculated, or miscalculated, to be uneconomical with the truth?

'A disgrace'

There's much more to this than mere wordplay.

So much of Metro Mayor Andy Street's regeneration strategy for the West Midlands Combined Authority rests on the delivery of high-speed stations in central Birmingham and in Solihull, near the airport and National Exhibition Centre, that its cancellation would be hammer blow.

Boris Johnson insists that the long-term economic interests of our region may be better-served by improving connectivity within our area and between east and west, and by extra investment in existing rail connections to cities including London.

His suggestion would certainly play better among many of those Tory party members I mentioned in Warwickshire and Staffordshire.

But when the godfather of regional devolution, the former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine, came to Birmingham to present the report he'd prepared jointly with Andy Street, entitled Empowering English Cities, he was scathing. He told me scrapping HS2 would be "a disgrace".

Whatever doubts may shroud HS2 itself, the one certainty is that the debate will continue to rage.

After the project had been reaffirmed at last year's Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, the Stop HS2 campaign was there in force outside the convention centre. They were armed with placards proclaiming imitation shock-horror newspaper headlines and shouting: "terrible train disaster, read all about it!"

Their protests are supported by the independent transport consultant Michael Byng, who produced one of the first forecasts that the true cost of the project as a whole was set to escalate beyond that £100bn figure.

Mr Byng will be joining me in the Sunday Politics Midlands studio for the final programme in our present series. Also with me, will be the Foreign Office Minister and Conservative MP for West Worcestershire Harriett Baldwin and the Shadow Pensions Minister and Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington Jack Dromey.

And I hope you will join us too at 11:00 on BBC One West Midlands on Sunday 21 July 2019.

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