Pressure on Sunak as his own former levelling up minister calls for HS2 to be finished in full

Dehenna Davison and Jake Berry join backlash against PM’s move to axe northern leg

Adam Forrest,Archie Mitchell,Jon Stone
Sunday 01 October 2023 22:11 BST
Rishi Sunak dodges question on HS2 ahead of Tory party conference

Rishi Sunak is under mounting pressure from senior Conservatives in the north of England over HS2, as both his former levelling up minister and the former Tory chairperson joined calls for the northern leg to be built in full.

Dehenna Davison and Jake Berry called for the PM to “crack on” with the Birmingham to Manchester route after The Independent revealed that Mr Sunak and his chancellor Jeremy Hunt were in talks to axe phase 2.

Their intervention came as Mr Sunak insisted that the UK was not a “laughing stock” despite uncertainty for businesses over HS2 – while business secretary Kemi Badenoch admitted international investors had raised concerns.

As the Tory conference kicked off in Manchester, Ms Davison – who resigned from the levelling up department only last month because of “debilitating” migraines – said: “It’s right we crack on and do it.”

The influential red wall Tory told Times Radio: “My view is that it should be the toughest bit first, you do the northern bit first. So obviously we’re not quite sure fully what decision has been made yet – but I certainly hope it’s the right one and that the northern section is actually prioritised.”

The former levelling up secretary Dehenna Davison (Getty)

Mr Berry, Tory chairperson under Liz Truss’s short-lived spell at No 10, said the Manchester to Birmingham section of the high-speed rail line “really matters” to people in the North.

The senior MP, who represents the red wall seat of Rossendale and Darwen, said people were more worried about the potential loss of Northern Powerhouse Rail – the east-west projects across the Pennines – than HS2.

But he insisted HS2 would enhance the east-west links. “Why in the north of England should it be an either or? So in my ideal world, both of them would be built,” Mr Berry told Times Radio.

Senior red wall Tories in the influential Northern Research Group have signalled they are willing to accept a delay to the northern leg of HS2 – so long as the PM commits to east-west rail projects.

Gove says HS2 to Manchester is a ‘good idea’ but costs have to be examined (Getty/PA)

But Conservative grandees Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Cameron, George Osborne and the Tory mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, are among the critics of scaling back the project, while London mayor Sadiq Khan warned it could make Britain a “laughing stock”.

Mr Sunak “completely” rejected the allegation from critics, as he was grilled on the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg, which include leaders across the North as well as predecessors at the top of the Conservatives.

“I’d completely reject that,” said the PM, insisting the business leaders he speaks to around the world are “excited about the opportunity that investing in Britain offers”.

Pressed by the BBC host if the high-speed line would ever get to Manchester, he said: “We’re getting on with delivering [the project], I’m not going to comment on this speculation.”

Kemi Badenoch admits concerned investors have asked about HS2’s future (PA)

But Ms Badenoch suggested international investors had complained about uncertainty over HS2’s future. “There are some international businesses who’ve asked about investment there because it might impact decisions that they’re going to make,” she told The Sunday Times.

The business secretary played down the anger of UK industry chiefs. Claiming no British business leader had “chewed her ear off”, she said: “I’m going to be very honest: business has not raised it with me at all.”

The head of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership attacked Ms Badenoch for failing to “engage” with frustrated business chiefs – accusing her of only being interested in the politics of a right-wing Tory “faction”.

Henri Murrison told The Independent: “Kemi Badenoch I’m afraid to say isn’t an effective champion for British business in the cabinet – but more her faction within the Conservative Party. She clearly isn’t engaging with the case being made by the many who have spoken up on this issue.”

Conservative Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen told a Tory conference fringe event that the “indecision” on HS2 was causing a “distraction” as he urged ministers to commit to Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Levelling up secretary Michael Gove promised Tory conference delegates that Mr Sunak would say more on HS2 in “due course” – as he appeared to downplay the importance of the Birmingham to Manchester leg and hinted at alternative investment in the north.

The cabinet minister – believed to be “unhappy” about cutting the northern leg – praised HS2 to Manchester as a “good idea”. But Mr Gove warned the government had to ensure it was getting the “biggest bang for our buck” from all major investment projects.

The levelling up secretary played up investment in Northern Powerhouse Rail. “Yes, north-south links are important but so are east-west, and so are transport links within regions,” he told Times Radio.

Mr Gove also hinted at fresh investment for Leeds and other parts of the north if HS2’s northern leg is scrapped.

He told a fringe event: “One of the weaknesses Leeds has is that it’s the largest city in Europe without an effective metro system ... that’s probably the single most important thing you could do to connect the different enterprises within Leeds.”

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