What will Boris do next? COP26 is finally over, leaving delegates disappointed but an electorate forever altered. For two long weeks the oft-ignored warnings of scientists have been given emotional force by the articulate speakers of the Global South.

Now, even if voters share the Prime Minister’s evident fear of change, they know the days of gas guzzling are almost over. And closer, harsher scrutiny of Johnson’s self-proclaimed green credentials is inevitable.

Meanwhile, the sleaze scandal has given Labour its first opinion poll leads in a year, prompting Red Wall Tories to demand some big, visible levelling-up expenditure to improve their chances of re-election.

Yet the very opposite looks set to happen. Speculation is rife within the transport industry that when the UK Integrated Rail Plan is finally published, as promised after COP26, the second phase of HS2 to Leeds and Manchester will be shelved indefinitely, even as the main line from London to Birmingham and Crewe goes ahead - with a £106 billion price-tag that dwarfs Britain’s entire railway investment budget for the next two decades, yet somehow lacks proper hub connections at either end.

Still, HS2 Phase One is a done deal. Contracts have been signed, planning permissions obtained and cancellation costs would now exceed the whopping bill for just ploughing on.

Worse, the truly necessary Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) connecting Liverpool with Hull is going nowhere fast. “Spades in the ground” were scheduled for 2024/25 but bosses say they’ll “struggle” to meet that timescale, just as a new survey puts Bradford (Britain’s seventh largest city) at the bottom of Britain’s connectivity league table. Astonishingly, the 8-mile Leeds to Bradford rail trip is even slower today than in 1910.

The cost of building NPR is £40 billion - just a half of HS2 Phase One. Boris Johnson may hope his Magic Money Tree will finance the lot but his Chancellor clearly thinks otherwise. So NPR looks likely to be delayed again.

How will that play out? Back in July, when the Treasury decision to axe the HS2 Leeds/Manchester extension was leaked, the Prime Minister doubtless thought he could fudge his way around it. But the new joint laser focus on climate change and Tory sleaze rather changes things.

Boris Johnson is radiating vulnerability and lack of purpose and for a man who relies on boosterism that’s a very bad look.

So, will northern voters stand idly by as the only real point of HS2 - shorter journey times to the (real) North of England - becomes so many leaves on the line?

Will vocal, popular northern mayors stand by as squillions of taxpayer cash are ploughed into a vanity line between super-served London and Brum whilst Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and Hull most continue to thole a fragmented service of old, slow, polluting diesel trains?

Or might Boris try to square the circle and switch the cash for the doomed HS2 extension to fund the Northern Powerhouse line?

Politically, that’s risky. Northern voters, suspecting the Leeds/Manchester link is already dead, might grudgingly accept the loss if Northern Powerhouse Rail is confirmed and hastened in exchange. But such an accounting trick would prove that despite all protestations to the contrary, cash for that vital Northern rail project was never actually in place. If both projects hit the buffers, all hell will be let loose.

Scots may hardly care either way. HS2 will not transform cross-border travel times but has side-lined the UK Government’s commitment to track improvements north of Crewe to deliver game-changing three-hour journey times between London, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Still, there is an important Scottish side to the impending northern rail debate. Quietly and without fanfare, Scotland has surged ahead, laying 500 kilometres of new electrified lines across Scotland’s Central Belt despite all the fiscal constraints of devolution and the limitations of a privatised rail industry. The Borders Railway became the UK's longest new domestic line in more than a century when it opened in 2015 and a new link to Leven in Fife is under construction.

Westminster and Holyrood have dramatically different track records. Last July saw the publication of Network Rail’s Decarbonisation Strategy and the Scottish Government’s Rail Decarbonisation Action Plan. Both reports demanded electrification of their networks, with battery or hydrogen traction on lesser used lines.

But according to Rail Engineer magazine, “The key difference is that the former was a recommendation (from the rail industry to the UK Government) whereas the latter was an instruction (from the Scottish Government to industry).”

In short, Westminster is still just talking about new rail lines - even the Sacred Cow of HS2 - while the Scottish Government has been building them and electrifying existing lines including Airdrie to Bathgate, Paisley Canal, Cumbernauld, the Edinburgh-Glasgow main line and now Stirling to Dunblane, Alloa and Shotts.

Electric trains are not just better for the environment than old, polluting diesel puffers, electric units cost less to buy and operate, run faster, attract more passengers and enable longer freight trains to be run at higher speeds, so that more trains are carried on the existing infrastructure.

Sure, the image of Scotland’s rail network has been dented by decades of mismanagement by private operators and recent industrial unrest. No-one imagines loadsamoney will suddenly be available when the Scottish Government takes the ScotRail franchise in house next spring. But pointless shareholder pay-outs will end and hopefully the long-awaited Saltire (Oyster) Card will soon replace outdated paper tickets and a variety of 16 different smartcards. After all, COP 26 proved that is technically possible.

Who knows?

But at last, there is hope and confidence amongst staff that Scottish railways will once again be publicly-owned public transport.

Scotland still lags far behind our European neighbours - lacking high-speed links, double-track Highland lines and truly affordable tickets.

But our neighbours are not devolved countries trying to decarbonise railways and boost integrated electrified public transport with the borrowing powers of a large council.

Compared to the betrayed, gridlocked, travelling public of Northern England however, most of urban Scotland is already streets ahead.

And that’s worth remembering amidst the levelling up lies certain to be spun by a desperate Number Ten this winter.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.