How The Independent revealed Sunak’s plan to cut HS2 - and how the government reacted

The Independent’s revelations about HS2 rocked Westminster

Independent Reporters
Monday 02 October 2023 14:57 BST
The end of a one-mile section of the first completed HS2 tunnel under ancient woodland near Southam, Stratford-on-Avon (PA)
The end of a one-mile section of the first completed HS2 tunnel under ancient woodland near Southam, Stratford-on-Avon (PA) (PA Archive)

The northern leg of HS2 has been scrapped due to spiralling costs weeks after The Independent revealed the prime minister and chancellor were in talks about shelving it.

The Manchester leg of the high-speed rail project has been pushed back by at least seven years, The Independent understands.

The revelation comes after The Independent first revealed top-level talks were taking place between Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt about whether to scrap parts of the high-speed rail project HS2, on 13 September.

The much-delayed and overbudget scheme was for a line linking some of the country’s largest cities, intended to connect London, the Midlands and the north of England, with construction split into three phases.

Downing Street was evasive when approached for comment – but refused to deny discussions were taking place. Our story even appeared to be news to HS2’s project managers, as well as the Department for Transport.

The next day, the rest of the press pack caught up. The prime minister’s spokesperson was subjected to relentless in-person questioning at a regular briefing of political journalists in Westminster.

Still, No 10 would not deny the discussions had taken place. Other newspapers began to pick up the story.

Pressure started to grow: Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham was first out the gate, blasting the government: “Levelling up, my a***!” he said. It set the tenor of the rest of the reaction.

George Osborne was the next Tory big beast to weigh in. He took to the airwaves to warn that the prime minister was making a mistake.

Over the following days, he was joined by former Tory prime ministers Boris Johnson and David Cameron, as well as the government’s own infrastructure tsar.

Other mayors including London’s Sadiq Khan joined in, urging the PM to keep the project on track. Businesses groups warned it would be a betrayal to abandon work now, with some signing a joint letter.

Mr Hunt finally broke his silence more than a week after the original story, on Thursday. The chancellor said HS2 costs were “spiralling out of control” – his strongest hint yet that a cut was being considered.

The Independent later further revealed a decision on the line was due before Tory conference this coming week.

The prime minister was said to be considering a delay, rather than a cut to the project, spooked by the reaction to this newspaper’s revelations.

On the first day of the conference, Mr Hunt gave the clearest signal yet that he was ready to axe HS2’s northern leg as he attacked some of the high-speed rail project’s “totally unacceptable” costs.

Hours later, and minutes before Mr Hunt gave his conference speech, sources close to the government discussions told The Independent Mr Sunak had made the decision to delay the project by several years. One source said the prime minister planned to announce it at the conference, either on Tuesday or Wednesday.

The source said there would be some “reallocation” of HS2 money to the east-west rail projects known as Northern Powerhouse Rail in a bid to keep angry Tory MPs and business chiefs onside.

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