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CN Briefing: Lord Finkelstein; Philip Hammond; infrastructure; Theresa May; George Osborne; National Infrastructure Commission

It’s not often you get an insight into the conversations at the very highest level of politics, but last night Construction News got just that.

Following a panel discussion on the future of infrastructure post-Brexit, hosted by law firm Nabarro, CN got half an hour with Conservative peer Lord Finkelstein to talk about about the National Infrastructure Commission, November’s Autumn Statement and the resignation of Lord O’Neill.

A former adviser to the then Conservative leader William Hague, Lord Finkelstein lists prime minister Theresa May, business secretary Greg Clark, former chancellor George Osborne and former prime minister David Cameron as close friends and confidants – he is even helping Mr Cameron write his memoirs.

Here’s what he had to say.

National Infrastructure Commission – Lord Finkelstein doubts the NIC will get statutory footing: “Legislation takes time and effort and you would have to be completely sure that it would make a difference, I haven’t detected anything in government that will want to change its status.”

Autumn Statement – Infrastructure projects are high on the chancellor’s priority list: “In the Autumn Statement the government will follow through on this idea to borrow while interest rates are low.” The Northern Powerhouse is likely to benefit, with finance for projects in the region expected to increase.

May vs Osborne – Lord Finkelstein believes too much has been made about the dismantling of Mr Osborne’s policies by Mrs May: “That’s all a bit overstated… there’s no doubt they have different areas of interest, and it is clear Theresa does wants to do things differently, but I don’t think it is a case of ‘he is my enemy and I must remove all he has done’.”

Airport expansion – Lord Finkelstein expects a free vote in the Cabinet to come before the end of the month, but says no-one will talk about it at a governmental level. He said Heathrow is quietly confident about a decision going its way, but did not rule out “some sort of dual decision” for runways at both Heathrow and Gatwick.

Brexit – The UK looks to be heading for a “hard-ish” Brexit: “Once you have made the decision that you will insist on changing free movement in any way, you are immediately ruling out most soft Brexit options.”

HS2 – “Nobody’s wavering on that at all, everyone’s in favour of it.”

Lord O’Neill’s resignation – “It was a blow, because he was good at the negotiations and he had a good focus on international trade and the government wouldn’t have wanted to lose him at this point… But no one is indispensable.” He speculates that Lord O’Neill’s decision to resign was due to his relationship with the new chancellor: “Politics is more about chemistry than it is about physics.”

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