Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, has said in a statement today in the House of Commons that HS2 will proceed. A Government Minister will oversee the project full-time to ensure that costs are brought under control, with construction work now expected on building the line to start this year. The first stage of the project between London and Birmingham is expected to be completed within around ten years, with work on later stages expected to be finished by 2040.
Boris Johnson said in his statement:
“I cannot say that HS2 limited has distinguished itself in the handling of local communities. The cost forecasts have exploded, but poor management to date has not detracted from the fundamental value of the project.”
The Labour Party also confirmed that it backed the project, which was initially approved by the then Secretary of State for Transport, Andrew Adonis, in 2009. The project may cost up to £100 billion, although the Prime Minister said he hoped that the total bill would come to no more than £88 billion.
The Prime Minister added that the benefits of the project were still clear in terms of increasing capacity on the rail network and ensuring that trains could get from Birmingham Airport to London in around 38 minutes.
A spokesperson for the CBI said:
“The Prime Minister’s decision to back HS2 sends the right signal around the world that the UK is open for business. HS2 shows the government’s commitment to levelling up the nations and regions of the UK. The project will bring jobs, new homes, skills and investment to the areas of the country that need them most. Once built, HS2 will bring much needed capacity to our railways and help to realise the government’s promise of an ‘infrastructure revolution’ for the North, Midlands and beyond.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition, has confirmed in a speech made today at Coventry University that the Labour Party will back the UK’s membership of a customs union. The decision means that the Conservative Party may now struggle to get their legislation through the House of Commons due to a number of MPs who support remaining in the union.
“During the transition period, Labour would seek to remain in a customs union with the EU and within the single market. That means we would abide by the existing rules of both. That is so the government, businesses and workers only have to make one adjustment, from the current situation to the final terms”.
“Labour would seek a final deal that gives full access to European markets and maintains the benefits of the single market and the customs union as the Brexit Secretary, David Davis promised in the House of Commons, with no new impediments to trade and no reduction in rights, standards and protections.
We have long argued that a customs union is a viable option for the final deal. So Labour would seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union to ensure that there are no tariffs with Europe and to help avoid any need for a hard border in Northern Ireland”.
Carolyn Fairbairn, the Director General of the CBI, welcomed the decision and said that it “put jobs and living standards first by remaining in a close economic relationship with the EU”. Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, criticised the Labour leader and said “Labour’s confused policy would be bad for jobs and wages, it would leave us unable to sign up to comprehensive free trade deals, and it doesn’t respect the result of the referendum”.
Five business groups have confirmed that they are writing to David Davis, the Secretary of State for Leaving the EU, to ask for an efficient transition arrangement. The exact text of the letter is to remain confidential, but one of the groups told the BBC that “it will emphasise our wish for a deal and clarity”.
The five groups are the Institute of Directors, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and the EEF manufacturing body.
The letter is thought to include the text:
“It is vital that companies only have to undertake one adjustment as a result of the UK’s withdrawal, not two – and that businesses, the UK government and authorities in the EU have enough time to make the changes needed to deliver Brexit successfully”.
A Government spokesperson said:
“We are making real and tangible progress in a number of vital areas in negotiations. However, many of the issues that remain are linked to the discussions we need to have on our future relationship. That is why we are pleased that the EU has now agreed to start internal preparatory discussions on the framework for transitional arrangements as well as our future partnership”.
Brandon Lewis, the Immigration Minister, has said that EU freedom of movement will end in March 2019, just hours after Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, said that there would be no “cliff edge”. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had also indicated last week that there would be no sudden end to freedom of movement.
Lewis, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, said that freedom of movement would end at the moment that the UK left the EU, saying “we’re very clear that free movement ends when we leave”. The Government’s change of policy is expected to concern business groups including the CBI, who have been supporting an extension to the freedom of movement rules.
Earlier today, Amber Rudd, had announced that the Migration Advisory Committee would be asked to report on EU migration and its implications for the UK economy. The Government said that this report, which was welcomed by the CBI, would still be commissioned.
Diane Abbot, the Shadow Home Secretary, welcomed the report but criticised the view of Brandon Lewis and said that no changes should be announced until the report had been completed. She said:
“There is far too much heat and not enough light about immigration, so any truly objective and well-informed analysis must be welcome”.