Early Decisions: HS2 and Huawei

February 14, 2020
China | Infrastructure

It is early days in Boris Johnson’s administration, and with a large 80+ seat majority in Parliament, the Prime Minister has significant freedom to set his own agenda over the course of the next four years. As in every government, however, the first months of a new administration are absolutely critical in setting the tone for the rest of its term. It is already in these first few days that the next election, years away, can be won or lost.

Looking towards the next Parliamentary Election, likely to be in 2024, the key challenge for the Government is to unite the diverse a range of its voters under one platform as effectively as it did in the Brexit Election. Will these voters continue to find common ground? Or, now that Brexit is behind us, will this broad coalition begin to fall apart as other issues, issues that divide the population differently, come to fore? And then, will the opposition parties be able to seize the opportunities provided such instances?

In the past month, the Prime Minister gave his approval on two potentially divisive issues. He green-lighted the continued construction of High Speed 2, commonly known as HS2, a controversial, multibillion-pound construction project that aims to build a high-speed rail line between London and Birmingham and then onwards onto Manchester and Leeds. And he granted the Chinese firm Huawei access to the UK’s 5G network, despite warnings from the United States and from within his own party.

Neither of these two issues featured prominently in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. The words ‘Huawei’ and ‘5G’ are not mentioned at all. With respect to HS2, the Conservatives reservedly promised to “consider the findings of the Oakervee review into costs and timings and work with leaders of the Midlands and the North to decide the optimal outcome.” Their manifesto highlighted the project’s significant £81 billion price tag and late final completion date––sometime in 2040.

The two other major parties were more straightforward on HS2. The Liberal Democrats promised “a continued commitment to HS2” while Labour even suggested “completing the full HS2 route to Scotland.” Even so, these comments were qualified. The Liberal Democrats emphasised “tighter financial controls” and, like Labour, noted the potential environmental impact of the project. Meanwhile, the smaller parties, namely the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the Brexit Party, proposed scrapping the project entirely. The SNP did not mention HS2 in their manifesto.

As such, few Conservative voters, if any, voted the way they did in December 2019, explicitly knowing that their party would make these two significant policy decisions on HS2 and Huawei. Over the course of the next four years, it is highly likely that other decisions of a similar scale will also fall under this categorisation because the Conservative Party’s election platform was noticeably light on longer term promises beyond Brexit.

Thinking about this challenge­ and opportunity––­both for the parties in Government and in opposition––Redfield & Wilton Strategies sought to find out in a recent poll of 1,216 eligible voters in Britain what the public thought about these latest two decisions. To get a proper grasp of the mood, we asked those voters to what extent they agreed with two strongly worded statements:

Construction of High Speed 2 (“HS2”) should be stopped immediately.

Boris Johnson’s decision to allow the Chinese company Huawei to sell its 5G technology in the UK is dangerous to the UK’s national security. [1]

What we found is that a plurality of voters stands against these two decisions by the Government. Altogether, 43.0% of those polled agreed that HS2 should be stopped immediately, while 21.7% disagreed. Those who voted Conservative in 2019 were the closest to being split on the issue, with 38.6% agreeing and 31.5% disagreeing. At the same time, voters for the other parties were significantly stronger in in their opposition to HS2.

Construction of High Speed 2 (“HS2”) should be stopped immediately.

On Huawei, 42.6% overall agreed that the Government’s decision was dangerous to the UK’s national security. Fewer than 20% disagreed. However, in comparison to HS2, the degree to which respondents agreed or disagreed with the Huawei decision was weaker. Responses tended to cluster more around ‘somewhat agree’ and ‘somewhat disagree.’ More people also selected ‘don’t know’ and ‘neither agree nor disagree’ as options. This is most likely due to the larger amount of coverage HS2 has received in the press.

Boris Johnson’s decision to allow the Chinese company Huawei to sell its 5G technology in the UK is dangerous to the UK’s national security.

In any case, the Government has clearly taken significant risks with these two latest decisions. Opposition to these decisions may continue to fester as their expected potential benefits will not arrive for some time––certainly not before 2024. Undoubtedly, the opposition parties should see before them a great opportunity to stake a clear position that captures the broader mood of the public.

[1] We believe giving a strongly worded, forceful statement is the best means of capturing where the public stands on an issue. It allows us to identify those who feel strongly about an opinion and those who can be encouraged to move towards a stronger stance. It is harder to make these distinctions otherwise. Those polled will always find it easier to carelessly agree or disagree with a qualified statement than with a forceful one.

Data tables for this research can be found here. To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.