So Boris Johnson did not break promises he had made shortly after becoming prime minister in July 2019, in his election manifesto later that year, and more than 50 other times. At least not in parliament. He got Grant Shapps to do it for him.
And who better? Because Shapps is exactly the kind of person this prime minister needs to pull him out of a hole. Someone who knows that he is genuinely superficial: that there is less in him than meets the eye. Someone who strangely considers his fake alias Michael Green to be a sign of cunning. And who, like everyone else, still can’t believe his luck being appointed cabinet minister and is determined to enjoy every minute he has to stay in office.
For any other minister, being forced to make a statement from the Commons to announce that the government was reneging on its commitments to build the eastern stretch of HS2 to Leeds and a high-speed “Northern Powerhouse Rail” between Manchester and Leeds could have been a stressful concert. But for the Minister of Transport it was a day like any other. An opportunity to get out of the office and look busy. Grant’s great gift is that he will do exactly what he is told without complaint. The slightly cheesy smile is his default expression and he would have been as happy to make a statement in which the government kept its promises as he was to one that broke them.
Shapps began by gleefully outlining the basics of the new integrated rail plan. It was going to cost 96,000 million pounds and it would go up through the north and the central area. Various parts would be electrified, Leeds would get a mass transportation system and everything would be much better than it is now. He wasn’t entirely sure how, as it was all devilishly complicated, but it would be very helpful if everyone on camera took him at his word instead of asking tough questions.
Shadow transportation secretary Jim McMahon was understandably skeptical. Why had the government continued to make promises about HS2 and NPR if it did not intend to keep them? Surely it must be obvious to all that this watered down version was going to be a great disappointment to all those who had believed that the government was going to revolutionize the transportation network in the north.
What had clearly happened was that Boris had only told Rishi Sunak how much everything was going to cost at the last minute, and the chancellor had disconnected the most expensive parts because, like most of the prime minister’s ideas, it was prohibitively expensive. So what was left was something that would satisfy only a few people and would make the government appear weak and disoriented. And by the way, it wasn’t a £ 96bn project. It was a £ 56 billion plan because £ 40 billion had already been announced or spent on HS2 parts that were underway.
Like Prince Andrew, Grant did not break a sweat. If anything, his smile widened. Now he was in his element because it was time for the ultimate shit. “It’s definitely a £ 96 billion project,” he declared, doubling the numbers. In fact, it could have been a lot more, perhaps up to £ 500bn, given the amount of time the same money was advertised again.
But anyway, the main point was this. It may seem that the government broke some promises, but it did so not because it could not be trusted, but because it was trying to provide Northerners with an even better transportation system than they could have devised on their own. Travel times were going to decrease. Aside from London to Leeds, that would be 32 minutes slower than the original plan.
And the very good news was that the job would definitely, definitely be finished in less than 10 years, some hope. Better yet, Conservative MPs with seats where there would have been a lot of construction disruption with little obvious profit from HS2 could tell their constituents that they had gotten their previous lives back. Peace and quiet everywhere. All that was left to do was for the Conservative Red Wall MPs who had spent the past two years telling their constituents that the government could be trusted to keep their word to tell them that they were leveling up in a different way. Like down.
This was actually quite a bit better than it could have happened. Unsurprisingly, Labor struggled to deliver on the broken promises and obvious shortcomings of the PIR that seemed increasingly written on the back of a pack of cigarettes, but most of the few dozen Conservative MPs in the chamber opted for not fight and instead thanked Shapps for what he had done for his constituencies. Perhaps they were under orders not to make a fuss in public (there has been enough of that in recent weeks) and were saving their anger for behind closed doors.
Even so, some conservative deputies broke ranks. Huw Merriman, the Conservative chairman of the transportation committee, openly attacked the government for not keeping its word. Robbie Moore, Kevin Hollinrake and Craig Tracey also expressed their displeasure. Cities like Bradford, Sheffield, Newcastle and Hull had been completely modified. There was a bastard in the plan for them. And on the lines that were being built, there was little extra capacity. Therefore, passengers would only have to stand up, as they got somewhere much less quickly than they would have with the original proposals, which would also have guaranteed them a seat.
Not that Shapps bothered. He had done his part. He could have been transportation secretary, but he certainly wasn’t in charge: he was just a messenger. It would be Boris’s butt that was at stake. Makes a change of leaves.
Goodbye to calm by John Crace (Guardian Faber, £ 9.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, request your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism