Is Labour right behind HS2?

Artwork of possible HS2 train design

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"Yes, but..."

If you needed two words to describe what was becoming Labour's position on the planned new north-south high speed rail line, HS2, they would be the two I would opt for.

Led by shadow chancellor Ed Balls, Labour began to sound increasingly sceptical about an idea it had originally signed off in government.

It wasn't cancelling the train, but there were problems. There were, if you like, leaves on the line.

More on those leaves in a moment.

There would be, Labour repeatedly told us, "no blank cheque" for the project.

Mr Balls argued that the costs of the project had spiralled and any responsible shadow chancellor had to be responsible with the public finances.

'Beggared belief'

Many at Westminster mused that the price tag for HS2, £50bn, was a tantalising pot of money for a shadow chancellor to consider spending elsewhere and his scepticism was a vehicle for trying to convince people that he, and Labour, could be trusted with the country's money.

It was no surprise that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats ridiculed the apparent equivocation and prevarication.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said it was "miserable," "pathetic" and "absolutely beggared belief."

But what was far more tricky for Labour was what the party's own big noises in the north of England had to say.

These are people who aren't big names outside their own cities.

But they run some of England's biggest places outside London: Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Newcastle.

With Labour out of power at Westminster, they hold some of the most powerful offices of government, albeit local government, held by any Labour figures in the country.

After Labour's reshuffle, they wrote to the new shadow transport secretary, Mary Creagh, to express their exacerbation at what they called "a significant weakening of the party's commitment to the project".

'On track'

They warned, rather strikingly, of a "protracted public conflict between the party leadership and the Labour led core cities" if this wasn't resolved.

A matter of days later, Ed Balls spoke at the CBI conference.

My colleague James Landale blogged then on what he spotted as a possible change of tone from Labour, to sound a little more positive.

And now back to those leaves on the line I was referring to.

In an interview with Ed Balls' regional newspaper, the Yorkshire Post, the former Shadow Transport Secretary, Maria Eagle, now in the environment brief, appears to have a little dig at her shadow cabinet colleague.

"It's all back on track... There's been some leaves on the line, I think, that Ed Miliband has cleared away. Our position now is very clear," she told the newspaper.

And she said she understood why some had demanded greater clarity from Labour's leadership on HS2: "I understand the concerns and why they feel the need to express their views, and I think our position is now very clear. Ed Miliband has made it very clear. And it's pretty much what I was saying when I was doing the job. We're going to deliver this north-south railway line."

Next March is likely to be the moment when the legislation needed to make HS2 happen, known as a hybrid bill, reaches a crucial stage in the Commons.

Labour sources suggest that even then won't necessarily have to be the moment the party definitively commits one way or another.

But it's unlikely too much equivocation and prevarication will be sustainable either.

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