The media went to town on the “grenade” Mr Tyrie chucked into the Chancellor’s path with his wide ranging condemnation of current economic policy last week-end. They have largely ignored the equally explosive attack on Mr Hammond the Transport Secretary made by no less a figure than Archie Norman.
Mr Norman was a Conservative Shadow Cabinet member. More than that, he was the first serious moderniser of the Conservative party, bringing in new measures and a new dress sense for William Hague’s Conservative HQ. Mr Hague regarded him very highly and adopted a lot of his advice. Mr Norman is now Chairman of ITV.
He chose eve of conference to publish a damning indictment of High Speed 2. He recommends scrapping the project, and spending half the amount of money it is estimated to cost on substantial improvements to the existing railway. His business sense tells him we could could get a lot more improvement for a lot less money by making this change.
Meanwhile, Mr Hammond was busily putting himself about in the media, granting personality type interviews. He seems to be positioning himself for a possible move in next year’s reshuffle. The spinners and his own words are designed to portray him as a safe pair of hands, in a job he does not particularly relish.
People who want to control public spending are against him, as to them HS2 appears to be a large vanity project with a very large cash price attached, little suited to an age of austerity. Conservative greens are against him, as they dislike cutting a huge steel and concrete pathway through the beautiful English countryside. People who want some balance in tranport budgets are against him, as they fear this project will swallow too much of the available cash.Many business people like Mr Norman are against him, as they do not think this is the best high cost project to stimulate growth. Even some anti CO2 greens do not think this is the best way to curb emissions. Mr Hammond has united petrol heads and countryside lovers, greens and the business lobby against him, to say nothing of most of the Conservative party.
I suspect Mr Hammond would like to move on to leave behind this meddlesome project. My advice to him remains that he should defer commitment until after the next election. If they have turned the public finances round by then, things might look different. They by then might also have changed their minds about the true transport priorities for our nation.
In the meantime, if Mr Hammond does want to build some bridges with Conservatives, he needs to review the spending priorities of his department, and do more to ease road congestion. He has now accepted the proposal some of us have urged to allow more hard shoulder running on motorways, as a quick and realtively cheap way of doing something. In my area of the country this is needed, linked to noise suppression measures to improve the quality of life of those who live near the motorways. So far his enthusiasm for hard shoulder running has not extended to the Thames Valley.