Danny Alexander held up a mock yellow Budget box to diehard Liberal Democrat activists at their spring conference in Liverpool at the weekend. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury said he wanted to deliver next year’s Budget from the sunny briefcase, the hue of his party rather than the traditional red, as chancellor in a Liberal Democrat-led government.
That’s some chutzpah for a man whose party, just seven weeks from now, faces losing about half of its 57-seat haul from 2010, one of which looks increasingly likely to be his own – the lavishly titled Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey in the Highlands.
Mr Alexander has even called on Labour and Conservative supporters to vote tactically for him, in order to stop the Scottish National Party grabbing the seat as part of its unchecked surge north of the border. His cause hasn’t been helped by an appearance in a video that was part of a “dodgy donor” sting earlier in the month, although the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, points out that this footage merely shows Mr Alexander “being a polite guy”.
That’s true: Mr Alexander is courteous although he does get rather irritable if you point out that the Lib Dems are going to lose a huge chunk of their 200 or so second places even if they manage to hold on to seats in May, making their forthcoming rebuilding job even more tortuous.
The 42-year-old has certainly had to put up with a lot, from the unflattering nickname of Beaker (of Muppet Show fame) to Harriet Harman’s dismissal of him as a “ginger rodent”. What really irks, though, is that the Tories have been handed the credit for the country’s vast infrastructure projects either announced or started over the past few years. Yet Mr Alexander chairs the Cabinet’s infrastructure sub-committee and, according to senior Lib Dems, has visited Crossrail, the £16bn railway being carved under London, so often that he will soon be given his own hi-vis safety jacket.
In mitigation, Mr Alexander always gets a day during Budget and Autumn Statement weeks to make some of his own announcements, and these invariably centre on huge building projects. In December’s Autumn Statement, his officials actually grabbed him four days, snaffling much-needed media coverage of plans for more than 1,400 flood defences costing £2.3bn, and a tunnel under Stonehenge.
Mr Alexander’s big day is expected to be tomorrow, although his words will surely be lost in the wake of George Osborne’s Budget speech today. As the polls suggest the Tories are building momentum over Labour, so plenty of political pundits believe that the success or otherwise of today’s speech will either confirm David Cameron’s return to Number 10, or douse hopes of taking an unassailable lead.
The lack of exposure is a shame for Mr Alexander, as he will surely have wanted to garner some of the credit for what promises to be one of the most talked-about major projects for years: the HS3 high-speed rail link. The Independent on Sunday revealed at the weekend that HS3, a £7bn-£10bn link that would get commuters from Leeds to Manchester in about half an hour, will be endorsed in a Department for Transport business case to be published later this week.
Mr Osborne is expected to name-check the project today as part of his promise to create a “Northern Powerhouse” that would rebalance the economy away from its over-dependence on London and the South-east.
The document is expected to show that HS3 could directly link up with the £42.6bn HS2 that is currently in the process of getting legislative approval. Starting at London, HS2 will divide into two lines at Birmingham, forming a Y-shaped network that ends in Leeds and Manchester.
HS3 would, in effect, put a hat on the Y, creating a seamless Birmingham-Manchester-Leeds triangular fast train service, with a later phase stretching the route to Liverpool and Hull. As a result, there could be a new, clearly defined economic zone north of London that would provide a huge boost to business and employment in these great metropolitan cities.
There are, of course, hordes of opponents to HS2, who have, understandably, opposed the railway on the grounds of potential environmental blight on the countryside and that these tens of billions of pounds are a tremendous waste in a supposed age of austerity. Certainly HS2 Ltd, which oversees the project, hasn’t done itself any favours over the years by badly mis-costing and by handing public money to a lobbying firm.
In response to The IoS report, Richard Wellings, the head of transport at the Institute of Economic Affairs, tweeted (“in a personal capacity” in social media parlance): “Osborne wheels out ill-conceived HS3 plan as pre-election gimmick to win northern votes.”
Maybe so, but you can bet that Mr Alexander is privately fuming that, once again, it is Mr Osborne who is going to be associated with some of the Britain’s grandest infrastructure plans since the Victorians were squeezing into their whale-bone corsets.
Mr Alexander knows he won’t get another shot at this level of power: that yellow box has already been auctioned off, going to a particularly zealous Lib Dem activist for a cool £1,500 at the weekend.
He faces not only a lost Westminster seat, but a lost legacy.