David Cameron is pinning his hopes of an outright victory at the next election by pushing ahead with a controversial high-speed rail project. Ministers are convinced the expensive rail link will give Tories the breakthrough in northern cities that they need to gain a majority.
The PM is risking the wrath of the Home Counties, where 14 Tory constituencies with rock-solid majorities are affected by the building of the £33bn line. Ministers believe that the economic boom it will bring to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds outweighs keeping the Conservative heartland happy, whereas axeing the scheme could cost them the northern target seats they narrowly failed to secure in 2010.
By contrast, Tory seats such as those held by Cheryl Gillan, who has a 16,700 majority, will remain blue in 2015 regardless of whether the line goes ahead.
Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, said that going ahead with Britain's second high-speed line (HS2) was "the last best chance" to tackle Britain's economic inequality. It has been claimed the scheme could deliver £44bn of economic benefits to the UK, cutting journey times from London to Birmingham to 49 minutes, while Manchester will be a 73-minute trip and Leeds 80 minutes.
"It is not possible for Britain to maintain its prosperity in the 21st century unless we can close the growth gap between north and south," Mr Hammond said. It also emerged yesterday that he is planning to sell the rail link to recoup some of the taxpayers' investment.
Mr Cameron has given the project his "strong support", telling the Commons last week that the "time for high-speed rail has come". He is ready to face down opposition from within his own ranks. Other Tory ministers whose seats are affected on the 109-mile London-to-Birmingham stretch include the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, the civil society minister Nick Hurd and the Europe minister David Lidington. However, each has a majority of between 12,000 and 21,000.
In Birmingham, on the other hand, there are at least 10 seats that are Tory targets or were only narrowly won by a Conservative in May last year. Under government plans, the line will eventually split and link Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester. At least seven seats in and around Leeds are firmly in the Tories' sights. And in Manchester the Tories are desperate to make inroads and believe HS2 is the most high-profile way of brandishing their "northern" credentials. "This is the only big centrepiece policy that the coalition will be able to point to that definitely enhances the prosperity of the north," said a source.
The consultation on HS2 closes on 29 July with a final decision expected to be made by December. Campaigners against the plan, including the Taxpayers' Alliance, claim the Government is "foolish to waste taxpayers' money on a £33bn train for the rich".