One quality often attributed to Boris Johnson’s notorious chief adviser Dominic Cummings is the ability to play multi-dimensional chess – thinking several steps ahead, strategically playing many different agendas off against each other simultaneously.
That may well be the case, but in the first HS2 round of the tournament, this week he appears to have lost. The Prime Minister announced on Tuesday that the controversial new line would indeed go ahead in full, despite a huge overspend and longstanding opposition from both Cummings and Number 10’s transport adviser, Andrew Giligan.
Even so, political chess pieces are still being frantically shifted around the board. And from here on in, the game gets a whole lot more serious for northern leaders, for the consensus required will now move from a theoretical wish-list to real-world trade-offs.
Number 10’s decision to ‘green light’ the whole project – by no means the first time such an announcement has been declared – was certainly welcomed publicly by northern leaders and businesses on Tuesday. The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, the lobby group set up by George Osborne to continue pushing the agenda he led while in the Treasury, was particularly vocal in its celebration, declaring it a ‘vindication’ for the north’s collective approach to ensuring the project didn’t get cut off at Birmingham.
As one senior figure elsewhere in the north says, the view is broadly that ‘the battle has been won, if not the war’.
And indeed, on the face of it Boris Johnson has accepted all the key recommendations of the independent Oakervee review into HS2. That includes a six-month look at the northern legs – Crewe to Manchester and Birmingham to Leeds – in order to find efficiencies. Government is adamant that this is neither a ‘review’ nor a ‘pause’, particularly conscious of optics in the wake of being returned to power on the back of northern votes. But to borrow a phrase from Jeremy Corbyn, there will certainly now be a period of reflection.
While northern leaders have publicly warned that the north must not have a shoddy version of the ‘gold plated’ southern stretch as a result, in private those spoken to by the M.E.N. accept this process not only as an inevitability, but as an opportunity.
This, they hope, could be the route to finally combining the northern bit of HS2 with Northern Powerhouse Rail, the network of east-west high speed links that has been talked up by government, but hasn’t actually been signed off. They want it all to be one project, while the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has been explicit in calling for it by delivered by the north itself, through a body separate to the Department for Transport.
“The clowns who have got them into this mess, we shouldn’t assume they are going to be the same people who come up with the answers Boris is asking to be found for him,” says one senior figure sympathetic to that argument, who concedes there are probably efficiencies to be found.
“Would you trust the DfT to do anything right? Everything they’ve touched has been wrong.”
Nevertheless, getting that one giant rail project designed and delivered will be the real test for northern political consensus and for its ability to stop the government exerting divide and rule tactics.
There are certainly big question marks hanging over both elements of the scheme.
In the case of the northern stretch of HS2, there are suspicions in many quarters that the eastern leg to Leeds could yet be dropped, not least because there were briefings to that effect in the autumn. Even though transport secretary Grant Shapps has insisted both legs will be built, as one insider says, ‘it would be naive to assume that the eastern leg was 100pc nailed on’.
This fear is heightened by the potential that the Manchester to Leeds stretch of Northern Powerhouse Rail – which Boris Johnson was notably quick to green light within days of entering Number 10 – could be treated as an alternative. That would in effect mean Leeds would still be on the HS2 network, via the NPR extension from Manchester, but it would abandon South Yorkshire and the East Midlands.
There are also suspicions that this is quietly Greater Manchester’s current game. The city council recently commissioned a report by the consultancy Bechtel to draw up a new design for an underground station at Piccadilly, which would integrate HS2 and NPR together. Its new proposal would do that so smoothly that some fear it could undermine the argument for the eastern leg of HS2 further down the line.
This tension was not helped at the weekend by the intervention of Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, who told Sky News that while he still wanted to see both HS2 and NPR built, perhaps NPR could be ‘prioritised’ first.
This went down like a lead balloon among some northern figures and led a number to speculate privately that Burnham’s allies had been ‘thrown under the bus’. One scathingly described the comments as ‘erratic behaviour’ so soon before the government’s announcement, while another said that the ‘symbolism’ of the timing and the tone meant the mayor had ‘tiptoed’ into territory that could endanger the north’s collective line – which was that both schemes must be built.
Those close to Burnham view the intervention as successful, however. They believe it helped soften Boris Johnson’s language around the review-but-not-a-review of the northern legs, resulting in a more positive outcome – including explicit talk of an ‘integrated’ network – than had been briefed before the weekend.
Meanwhile one Manchester figure suggests this is ‘the nature of mayors’.
“It’s the perennial question of who speaks for the north and how does the north build consensus,” they say, pointing out that there is no expectation for individual mayors to run their narratives past the entire northern collective.
“Do you expect him to do what’s right for Greater Manchester, or do you expect him to build consensus with other places?
“I’m not sure any of us know.”
This gets to the heart of the political problem the north now faces, believes a senior insider elsewhere, who points out government is ‘telling anyone who will listen’ how keen it is for places to have elected mayors. This, they muse, could ultimately help with any tactic to divide and rule in a region that has put on a pretty united front in recent years.
“Once you get to the position where everyone has mayors, it’s a small step to competition, isn’t it?” they pose.
“If you were mendacious in the Treasury, the way to ameliorate devolution is to give everyone devolution, so you have a lot of mayors fighting over money. Nobody knows if that’s going to happen, but it all goes together to feel like we’re at a bit of a crossroads.
“Are we really moving in a direction where this generates more accountability and autonomy in the north, or actually – in a way – the more mayors there are, the more bodies there are with ‘north’ in the title, are we in danger of circling back to a bunch of mayors fighting over money coming out of the Treasury?”
That, they concede, is only one possible outcome. But where a project like Northern Powerhouse Rail is concerned, ‘it’s easier to be on board when it’s just an idea’.
“You’re going to be drawing lines on maps in the not too distant future,” they point out of NPR.
“That’s when it gets real and suddenly, it’s not controversy free.”
NPR, which is itself not as far down the line as the northern part of HS2, could also face tough choices in the months ahead.
As yet it is only at the stage of an outline business case and the meat of the proposal has not yet been laid bare.
Yorkshire leaders in particular want to see the initial Manchester to Leeds stretch dug directly through Bradford, creating a central station for a city that has fragmented rail connections. This is the most expensive option and one that has been periodically dangled over the heads of northern leaders by government – if you want this, they have suggested, then Manchester cannot have the station it wants at Piccadilly.
The approach from northern politicians so far has simply been to demand both.
But as the Yorkshire Post has reported at the weekend, the government had been poised to go out to consultation on a version of the Manchester to Leeds stretch that included options without central Bradford.
One insider blamed Transport for the North for itself drawing up a proposed wording that failed to mark Bradford as the preferred option, while government has blamed the north for failing to agree, not the first time ministers have taken that line.
Grant Shapps noted this week there would need to be trade offs.
“Different cities will want different things,” he told the M.E.N. on Tuesday, when asked about the underground station at Piccadilly, which was not explicitly mentioned by the Prime Minister in his statement.
“We need to work with northern leaders to priorities what’s wanted and what is practical to deliver.”
While leaders may eventually win that particular argument with government – and get not only an underground at Piccadilly but the Bradford station they so want – they may ultimately have to make a choice. And if they don’t face a choice on that, there will be others.
As one transport insider says: “There is a danger this turns into a bun fight. I do worry that without that lead voice in it, you get these disparate voices about what’s important.”
There also remains speculation across the north about the function of Transport for the North, the regional body set up to lobby for and coordinate major infrastructure projects. One senior insider describes it currently as ‘a post box for the Department for Transport’, although opinion is divided about whether it will remain a problem or become the solution.
While some feel its purpose may come into doubt as more and more mayors get money, public platforms and strategic powers, others – including the Northern Powerhouse Partnership – feel that a beefed-up version could form the basis for delivering the entire project.
That will, again, require some serious collaborative working if the north is to avoid the DfT effectively running the show from London.
The risk going forward will be that the killer political instinct of political advisers hundreds of miles away will pick off parts of the region, pitting them against each other, while the bureaucratic instincts of civil servants will be to stifle northern proposals in unflattering cost benefit analyses.
Cummings may have lost the first round, but HS2 North is a multi-dimensional chess tournament that looks set to span this Parliament and beyond.