Mixed Midlands messages on HS2 and local buses

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The prime minister promised billions for bus services and cycling on the same day as his HS2 announcement

"My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it"

So said Boris Johnson during the pre-Brexit political furore.

His words quickly achieved notoriety among his critics on both sides of the Channel who accused him of peddling an unworkable slogan.

It was impossible for Britain to enjoy the same benefits we had within the EU while also reaping the rewards of global trade agreements which would compete against Europe.

Undaunted, the PM's at it again.

It is no mere coincidence his long-awaited HS2 announcement should be coupled with his promise of an extra £5bn for local bus services and cycle routes outside London: if HS2 is the icing on the cake for HS2 supporters, improved bus services are meant to offer some political nourishment elsewhere in our local towns and rural areas.

Yes, we know Mr Johnson loves epic transport infrastructure projects.

Image copyright HS2
Image caption The costs of building HS2 are ballooning

He also loves buses so much he draws and models them in his spare time.

And "Boris bikes" have become part of the folklore surrounding his term as mayor of London, even if the pedal-power behind the project really came from the sponsor, Barclays Bank.

As so often in politics, it was all about who put the face on it and gave it its name.

Today, though, is about much more than some kind of vanity project. Politically it's deadly serious.

Partly it is because of the ballooning costs of HS2: Up to £106bn say its critics. "Or is it £130bn?" they ask.

Even the £85bn price admitted by HS2 Limited may present mixed messages to millions of taxpayers who have endured a decade of austerity and who do not live in those areas favoured by HS2.

Eight of the nine Midlands "blue collar" constituencies captured from Labour by the Conservatives in the recent general election are in the Black Country and north Staffordshire which will not be directly served by HS2.

Voters there may struggle to discern what's in it for them.

Uneasy coalition

Image caption West Midlands mayor Andy Street is a vocal supporter of HS2

This tension between the HS2 "haves and have nots" goes right to the heart of the awkward political issue facing the Conservatives.

It's one thing to assemble an election-winning alliance between traditional Tory supporters in the shire counties and their new found electorates who breached Labour's "Red Wall".

What they had most in common was their seething frustration over those earlier missed Brexit deadlines.

It's another thing altogether to convert a one-off consensus on a single issue into something more enduring which can withstand the inevitable succession of shocks from other major decisions.

HS2 poses the first big test. That's why Boris Johnson is also majoring on local bus services and cycle routes, precisely to reassure the Tories' friends on the wrong side of the high-speed tracks that they have not been forgotten.

But it's potentially even more toxic than that.

Image copyright UK Parliament
Image caption Labour's West Midlands mayoral candidate Liam Byrne has called for train makers in the region to be awarded a contract to build HS2's rolling stock

By promising the HS2 review the Conservatives, in effect, parked the issue during the election, so voters in core Conservative-supporting areas like Warwickshire and Staffordshire, where HS2 is generally seen as all pain and no gain, went to the polls reassured by heavy hints the review might lead to the whole project being scrapped.

By contrast our region's most powerful local politician, the West Midlands' Conservative mayor Andy Street, has been perhaps the most committed champion of HS2, pulling every lever at his disposal with the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues.

Their party nationally as well as locally has a vested interest in presenting his first term as mayor as a conspicuous success story in one of the biggest of those electorally elusive big city areas.

This might present yet another set of mixed Conservative messages, placing their high-profile urban leader conspicuously at odds with their traditional rural voters.

Come what may, Mr Street faces a challenging re-election campaign in May when his Labour challenger will be the Birmingham Hodge Hill MP and former cabinet minister Liam Byrne.

He has already put his own distinctive stamp on the HS2 debate by demanding that the £25bn contract to build the rolling stock should be awarded to train makers in the West Midlands.

Brexit Blues?

Here comes the rub.

Should Andy Street survive May's mayoral election to secure a four-year term, yet another of those potential Conservative fracture lines comes into view.

Mr Street has repeatedly warned against the dangers of what he sees as a bad Brexit deal for the local automotive industry.

"We have got to have frictionless trade because these are complex, just-in-time supply chains. We cannot have a tariff or a delay.

"In the trade negotiations that is what I will keep saying to every minister. We will be pressing very hard because it bloody matters here."

This message does not exactly tally with the "bare bones" Canada-style trade deal which the PM and his senior advisor Dominic Cummings are increasingly prepared to countenance before the end of this year, with EU trade talks set to get under way next month.

On his BBC One Sunday show last weekend, Andrew Marr suggested to Mr Street he already appeared to have triumphed over Mr Cummings on HS2. "Let battle commence," replied the mayor.

With less than two months to go until Mr Street faces the voters, this may also be a warning to the occupants of Number 10. Be careful what you wish for.