As the Conservatives remain in Manchester for their conference, Rishi Sunak has reportedly resolved to shelve the northern leg of HS2 to Manchester. That would mean the line went only from London to Birmingham.
Downing Street refused to deny that the Prime Minister would confirm the cancellation at a meeting of his cabinet. But government sources have also repeatedly stressed that no final decision has been made.
The scrapping of the line would be in defiance of three former Tory prime ministers – Boris Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron – and a significant number of backbenchers. Sunak is thought to be a long-standing HS2 sceptic and has been increasingly concerned about the ballooning cost amid high inflation; the last official estimate was £71bn, but that was at 2019 prices.
The PM may instead offer to upgrade other transport networks in the north but is likely to face claims the Conservatives have reneged on their election commitment to “level up” the country and narrow the north-south divide. Henri Murison, the chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, suggested it was “madness to leave what was meant to be the UK’s flagship infrastructure project like this”.
Cutting spending on the multibillion-pound scheme would cement Sunak’s status as a fiscal conservative as the next general election draws closer. But what of Labour? The party has long said it wants to see HS2 built in full, though it has so far refused to be more explicit.
While Keir Starmer has criticised the government for failing to deliver on levelling up, Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, has practised fiscal caution to avoid claims Labour would lose control of the economy. Yet given the backlash over the Tories’ decision, she will face pressure to make HS2 a clear dividing line.
Some of this pressure may come from the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, who reacted angrily when the future of HS2 was put in doubt last week, asking why the north “always has to choose” between one project and another.
While the future of HS2 may cause tensions within Labour, however, it is Sunak who will bear the greatest criticism. Scores of Conservative MPs elected in the north and Midlands stood on a pledge to invest in transport outside of London. Though public opinion is divided on HS2, cutting the scheme will further damage Red Wall Tories’ hopes of re-election.