The prime minister is expected to finally announce that the Birmingham to Manchester leg of the high-speed rail project will be ditched on Wednesday – weeks after The Independent revealed he wanted to axe it.
The Independent understands from several sources that Mr Sunak will commit to building HS2 to Euston – rather than letting it terminate in the west London area of Old Oak Common – after intense lobbying from ministers, business chiefs and mayors.
Mr Sunak is expected to assemble his cabinet on Wednesday morning to tell them his long-awaited decision, before spelling out that he will radically scale back the costly project north of Birmingham in his conference speech.
Northern leaders pleaded with Mr Sunak to meet them in a desperate bid to get an 11th-hour reprieve for the route to Manchester. The Tory mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, warned the prime minister that he was about to make “an incredible political gaffe”.
Mr Street told a conference event: “Every Labour MP in the North is lining up to say ... the Tories have come to Manchester to shaft the North. Is that really what we want to offer to our opponents or is there not a better answer?”
Mr Street said he had spoken with a number of private sector companies including Siemens, Arup and EY are willing to help the government deliver the project. The Independent understands that Mr Street believes the private sector could stump up £20bn to save the northern leg.
Manchester mayor Andy Burnham called the decision a “disgrace” and said “people in the North will be treated as second-class citizens – again.”
But Mr Sunak is thought to be convinced he must end the ballooning government costs of HS2, despite the immense political backlash. He is expected to say the government will reinvest the expected saving of about £34bn from HS2 in road and rail projects – including upgrades to east-west rail links in the north.
One northern transport source told The Independent: “They clearly haven’t thought about the politics of giving London a stay of execution but cutting Manchester. I can think of a half a dozen Tory MPs who might as well quit now.”
It remains unclear how much Mr Sunak will give to Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) – the east-west rail projects from Liverpool to Hull – as a way of sweetening the pill on HS2’s northern leg.
With the cost of scrapping the northern leg estimated at £34bn, business chiefs and northern mayors are pushing hard for £15bn from the PM and chancellor Jeremy Hunt that would pay for the Manchester Piccadilly to Manchester Airport leg and other Northern Powerhouse Rail projects.
Red wall Tory MPs in the Northern Research Group (NRG) are demanding that Mr Sunak commits to keeping the legislation underpinning HS2 tunnelling – in the hope phase 2 can be revived in future.
The NRG is also pushing for as much investment as possible in east-west projects. Senior Tory MP John Stevenson, NRG chairman, told The Independent: “It’s absolutely vital we have strong east-west connection. We need to see the legislation to allow Northern Powerhouse Rail to proceed.”
Henri Murison, chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, has written to Mr Sunak to ask for an urgent meeting – while demanding that the PM publicly sets out the costs behind his decisions.
The letter, shared with The Independent, warns Mr Sunak that his political legacy could be ruined, saying: “Your legacy as prime minister could amount to setting back the cause of closing the north-south divide for generations to come.”
Steve Rotheram, the Labour mayor of Liverpool City Region, said Mr Sunak would condemn millions of people across the North to use “creaking infrastructure for generations to come” if he scraps the northern HS2 leg.
Mr Rotheram told a fringe event: “We are being offered a false choice between HS2 and NPR and phony promises of jam tomorrow – pretend options between either investment in national infrastructure, or unspecified funding into local transport.”
In a series of broadcast interviews on Tuesday, Mr Sunak repeatedly refused to confirm he was scrapping the northern leg, saying: “I think it’s right that I’m not going to get forced into making premature decisions.”
Mr Hunt, who pulled out of a Northern Research Group event on Tuesday evening, as he was set to face more questions about HS2, accused Mr Street of “speculating” on the decision.
Earlier on Tuesday, the former HS1 chief executive Rob Holden accused HS2 bosses of a “lack of control” over spending. He claimed that he was denied a job on the project because he was told he “lacked the qualifications and experience”.
The HS2 scheme was given a budget of £55.7bn in 2015 but costs have ballooned, with an estimate of up to £98bn – in 2019 prices – in 2020. Since then soaring inflation will have pushed costs even higher.
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