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Tory titans out to derail Sunak over HS2

PM in crisis as top Conservative revolt over plan to scrap northern leg grows

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Monday 25 September 2023 16:40 BST
Andy Burnham makes HS2 plea to Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak is under growing pressure from senior Tories not to scrap the northern leg of the HS2 rail line ahead of the party’s conference in the city.

The Independent understands the prime minister is set to delay the Birmingham to Manchester high-speed line by up to seven years as part of a bid to ditch the project in the long term.

Former chancellor George Osborne and ex-deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine warned that axing the route to Manchester would be a “gross act of vandalism” which would mean “abandoning” the north and Midlands.

Fellow former Tory chancellor Philip Hammond has warned Mr Sunak that HS2 will become a “white elephant” if the northern leg is axed or delayed for years.

They join former PMs Boris Johnson – who has warned against a “mutilated HS2” – and David Cameron, who is believed to have privately raised significant concerns about the prospect that the high-speed rail line could be ditched.

The prime minister and his chancellor are set to decide the fate of HS2 this week, with an announcement expected before the Tory conference in Manchester next weekend.

The Independent understands that they will say that work on the railway north of Birmingham will be delayed in order to move costs into a future parliament – kicking phase 2 into the long grass.

Cabinet minister Grant Shapps said on Sunday that it would be “crazy” not to reconsider the project in the light of the rising price tag. In a hint that a delay was being considered, Mr Shapps said: “I think the sequencing of what happens next is a perfectly legitimate question.”

David Cameron and George Osborne are against the move to scrap HS2 (Getty)

But northern Tory MPs are pushing the government to compromise and make sure phase 2B – from Manchester to Crewe – is built to make sure it can help boost northern powerhouse rail projects. They are open to delays to phase 2A – Crewe to Birmingham.

And Tory titans urged Mr Sunak to rethink his plans. Writing in The Times, Mr Osborne and Lord Heseltine said: “Governments are remembered for what they build and create. Make this mistake and yours may only be known for what it cancelled and curtailed.”

If the northern section was cancelled “the remaining stump, little more than a shuttle service from Birmingham to a London suburb, would become an international symbol of our decline”, they said.

Lord Heseltine, former deputy PM, said the “essence” of levelling up was linking the north to the more “prosperous” south – warning that ditching the project would leave it as a “toy town” rail line.

“A vital part of it is HS2, so if they now cancel that vital part – the Birmingham to Manchester bit – that would send a very clear signal that the levelling up agenda has been put on deep freeze,” he told Sky News.

Lord Heseltine warned project would be left as ‘toy town’ rail (PA)

Mr Hammond said work done when he was at the Treasury showed that HS2 “had to go” to Manchester and Euston, telling the Express: “Anything else was a false economy that would leave us with a white elephant … The project was always about capacity. We needed more rail capacity from Manchester to London.”

Andy Street, the Tory mayor of the West Midlands, has warning that axing the main line of the project would make it the “most expensive white elephant in UK history” and “be a disaster for the country”.

Jason McCartney told The Independent he wanted HS2 “delivered in full to Manchester and Leeds with full connectivity to northern powerhouse rail”, but added: “I acknowledged it’s well over budget and it’s right that the PM takes a pragmatic view.”

Kieran Mullan, Tory MP for Crewe, also warned against axing HS2’s northern leg. “Do not leave the UK business community and, in fact, the world business community, doubting whether we can ever deliver on big and bold projects.”

Steve Brine, chair of the health select committee, said it would look “odd” to scrap the scheme in the days before Tory MPs and activists arrive in Manchester for their annual conference on Sunday.

Former PM Boris Johnson warned Sunak not to ‘mutilate’ HS2 (PA Wire)

Downscaling HS2 would create “a commercial and operational mess”, industry experts have also warned, with fears the government is also set to ditch the link from Old Oak Common to Euston – leaving it as a shuttle service between west London and Birmingham.

William Barter, a railway consultant whose has worked for the Department for Transport, said scrapping HS2 would result in “80% of the costs and 20% of the benefits”, adding: “Until you get the railway to Euston, there’s not much benefit in it for anybody anywhere.”

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, told the BBC Radio 4 he will be writing to Mr Sunak to ask him not to scrap the high-speed rail project – saying it would “rip the heart out of Northern Powerhouse Rail” and create a “north-south chasm”.

The Labour mayor said he would be open to a delay – but insisted that if Mr Sunak wanted to scrap HS2 he should call a general election and get a mandate for that first.

West Midlands Tory mayor Andy Street is pushing for HS2 to go ahead in full (PA Archive)

Labour’s London mayor Sadiq Khan said he is “astonished and alarmed” that HS2 could become a “shuttle service” between Birmingham and west London.

Gordon Brown said ditching HS2 would cause “confusion and chaos”. The former Labour PM told LBC it is “very sad” politicians cannot agree to build “basic infrastructure” and said Britain is in danger of being stuck with “19th century solutions to 21st century problems”.

Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said the chaos around HS2 makes him “want to weep” and a truncated project will be a “total waste” of money.

He told Times Radio: “It rather looks like we’re going to totally waste the money on this in producing a rail at the cost of tens of billions, which will get you from Birmingham to central London less quickly than you can do at the moment.”

The bosses of dozens of leading businesses – including Manchester Airports Group, Virgin Money, and the Northern Powerhouse – have signed a letter to the government urging HS2 to be built in full. A group of 10 vice-chancellors of universities in the West Midlands, has also called on Mr Sunak to commit to HS2.

No 10 repeatedly declined to comment on speculation about the future of HS2 on Monday – but pointed out that there was precedent for delaying parts of HS2 due to “affordability” in a hint the project could be frozen.

Mr Sunak’s spokesman said: “We’ve talked previously and previously announced decisions to rephase parts of the project because of affordability pressures, which were exacerbated by inflation.”

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