BORIS JOHNSON will know the meaning of the priest Laocoon’s warning to his fellow Trojans: “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.”
Loosely translated from Virgil’s Latin as “I fear the Greeks, even when they bear gifts,” it should serve as a warning to anyone tempted by offerings from Britain’s present-day Prime Minister.
Today in the Commons, Johnson gave the green light to the HS2 railway investment plan.
Hopelessly behind schedule and grossly overbudget to the tune of up to £73 billion above the original projection of £33bn, the scheme envisages a new high-speed railway line from London to Birmingham, thence branching northwards in a Y configuration to Crewe and Manchester (HS2a) and to Sheffield and Leeds (HS2b).
The criticisms are legion. They include not only ballooning costs and the disruption of areas of urban, floral and faunal habitation, but also the apparent priority being given to the needs of commuters to and from London.
Such a huge transfusion of public money, it has been argued, can only diminish the prospects for much-needed investment in Scottish, Welsh and the third-rate trans-Pennine rail services.
On the positive side, as railway union leaders have pointed out in the Morning Star, the whole project will improve economic efficiency and traveller comforts while creating half a million new jobs in the Midlands and north of England over the next two decades.
New and enhanced railway lines could also reduce pressure on existing tracks and attract significant road and air freight and passenger travel, cutting carbon emissions and helping to combat climate change.
To win over the doubters, Johnson’s announcement promised a higher priority to the northern poles of the HS2 project and pledged extra government aid for local transport plans.
Only those unfamiliar with his history will trust Boris the Greek to meet in full the expectations he has consciously — and perhaps cynically — inflated with his garrulous hot air.
He has at least one eye on the next general election and the dozens of marginal seats captured from Labour in the English north and Midlands last December.
That’s why his speech yesterday was long on rhetoric and short on benchmark targets by which the performance of his new HS2 “tsar” and HS2 Ltd can be judged over the next four years.
Come the next election, most of the HS2 project will still — from the Tory leader’s perspective — be safely in the future, while the pledges will doubtless form a major part of his vote-seeking mantra.
Moreover, as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pointed out yesterday, there can be no prospect of creating an efficient and affordable railway network for the 21st century in the absence of wholesale renationalisation.
The Tories are keen to pour billions from the public purse into the offers of capitalist profiteers, while resolutely refusing to bring the industry back into public ownership except when those same privateers throw in the keys and walk away.
Corbyn also compared the Prime Minister’s promise of an extra £5bn investment in regional bus services and cycling lanes with the £5bn-plus in cuts to bus services forced on local authorities by Tory governments since 2010.
Scottish and Welsh MPs wanted to know whether or how their countries might benefit from HS2 and associated funding — only to receive characteristically cheap shots from Johnson aimed at the Welsh Labour and SNP governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh.
That was the real Johnson beneath the bluster and bombast, sharpening his sword for the battles to come. Trojans beware.
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