Need to know: the week ahead and the week just gone

The Intelex team look back at highlights from the weekend and what’s ahead, with a particular focus on the count-down to the 2015 Election:

The story this weekend: The Mail on Sunday published details of Labour’s public health strategy based on leaked documents, revealing the Party’s plans on public health, fitness, and alcohol.  The document outlined plans including reducing sugar and salt content in products targeted at children and banning advertising before the 9pm watershed.  Other plans include a minimum alcohol price and preventing drinks companies from sponsoring sports, impeding supermarkets from selling sweets at checkouts, a target of encouraging half the population to take up regular exercise within the next decade, and the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes. However the article suggested that the Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, opposes this interventionist stance, and quoted an unnamed Labour MP arguing that the Party ‘need to show business we are on their side’.  Umunna last week addressed the Food and Drink Federation annual dinner, emphasising the Party’s support for the sector – and failing to mention any aspect of Labour’s plans to tackle obesity and unhealthy lifestyles.  Labour figures have largely stayed silent on social media about the leak.

More Labour this weekend: Ed Miliband suggested Labour would consider a form of renationalisation of the railways. The proposal may well be popular given rising train prices and the £4bn of annual subsidy the rail network receives. The proposals would see the Labour take over the franchises as they expire, thereby costing the Government nothing. However, there is rumoured to be a £325m short-fall in the rail funding which would probably prevent an immediate cut in ticket prices.

The story of the week ahead: This week marks a year to go until the 2015 General Election and commentators seem to agree on one thing at least: the outcome is uncertain, with the likely impact of UKIP on the outcome posing a major conundrum. As Patrick Wintour outlines in The Guardian, ‘In the short term, The Great Unknown is whether the European and local elections will turn out to be a frolic, and the serious business of politics, as senior Tory Ken Clarke put it last week, will thereafter return.’ In his column, Patrick Wintour looks at the packed schedule of political events coming up over the next year, but reflects that one thing is likely: Government will grind to a halt as the parties turn their attention to the election

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HS2: As Labour support softens, the Government ups its game

Lexington consultant Owen Larter looks at recent developments in the HS2 debate.

It has been a long, hard summer for HS2. First, the Government confessed in its June Spending Review that the projected cost of the project will rise by almost 25 per cent, to £50bn. Then, at Labour’s Brighton Conference, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls announced that Labour are concerned about HS2’s rising cost and will subject the project to a ‘zero-based review’ following the next election. The softening of Labour’s support for the scheme is significant. Not only did Labour propose the line in the first place, but their newfound scepticism represents a crack in cross-party support for HS2 which had hitherto all but guaranteed its delivery. Labour’s outright opposition is far from certain, with many Labour constituencies set to benefit greatly from the project. The Party may however be tempted to develop HS2 into an election issue, allowing Labour to differentiate themselves from the supportive coalition partners and project an image of fiscal probity. Such a move would be a great boon to the anti-HS2 brigade and likely delay the scheme’s delivery, possibly indefinitely.

In response, the Government has upped its game. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin MP redoubled his evangelising efforts during conference season, reiterating the need for the line at a fringe event hosted by HS2 North West. McLoughlin seized on the terminology used by Labour to call the line ‘the new north-south rail line’ in an attempt to wrest the rebalancing rhetoric from Labour and capitalise on the party’s wavering support. David Cameron reaffirmed his support for HS2 during his keynote conference address and remains committed to the line as a central plank of the Coalition’s national economic plan and the Conservative’s bid to repair relations with northern voters.

Perhaps the most significant development however has been the rejuvenation of HS2’s management team. Sir David Higgins, one of the architects of London’s Olympic success, has been appointed as HS2 Ltd’s new chair, to be joined by the experienced Ben Ruse as ‘lead spokesman’, following his ten year stint at HS1. The appointments demonstrate renewed intent on behalf of ministers to steady the HS2 ship. Higgins’ main task will be to inject some positive momentum into the project and mobilise support for HS2 in the many regions set to benefit from improved rail connectivity. Big decisions also have to be made over whether HS2 will make concessions on the planned route and provide additional tunnelling. Higgins will have his work cut out. With the Bill mandating construction of HS2’s first phase to hit the floor of the House next month, the battle has just begun.