Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell plan to whip Labour into backing High Speed Two, despite their previous opposition to the £55bn railway – and risk the damaging resignation of one of the party’s highest flyers.
During the Labour leadership contest last summer, a source close to Mr Corbyn said HS2, which will cut journey times between London andBirmingham to 49 minutes, “benefited the few rather than the many”. Mr McDonnell, the shadow Chancellor, told the Department for Transport in 2013 that he was “not willing to lend his support” to the project “given the complete lack of information on the impact” on his Hayes & Harlington constituency in London. But both have since changed their minds and now back HS2, which is in line with the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
But Sir Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions who became a Labour MP last year, is vehemently against the project because he thinks it will lead to “decades of blight” for his Holborn and St Pancras constituency in the capital.
Sir Keir is furious because redevelopment work on HS2’s terminus, Euston, will last until 2033, disruption that has angered his constituents. He wants the terminus moved several miles away to Old Oak Common, but ministers say the Euston area will be economically regenerated when the project is completed.
Sir Keir has been tipped as a future leader of the Labour Party and was fast-tracked to the frontbench as a Home Office minister. There was speculation he could even stand in last year’s leadership contest, even though he was a novice MP.
The Camden New Journal reported last week that Sir Keir could resign if Labour enforced the whip on the HS2 bill, which will be debated on 22 March. However, it is understood that Labour is tabling an amendment designed to protect social housing around Euston and mitigate the impact of construction.
A source close to Mr Corbyn said this compromise will “hopefully” persuade Sir Keir to follow the whip and vote in favour of HS2. However, it is not definite that the amendment will be picked for debate and, even if it is, there might not be sufficient cross-party support to get it passed.
The Conservatives are more badly split over HS2, with many middle-England MPs worried they will lose supporters who are dismayed by the project blighting the countryside.
Conservative backbenchers have laid a number of amendments to ease the harsher effects of construction.