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  1. The Staggers
2 October 2023

The farce of scrapping the Manchester leg of HS2

Only this government would announce a policy such as this in Manchester, and still lay claim to levelling up.

By Jonn Elledge

Oh my god he did it. He actually bloody did it. Rishi Sunak genuinely drove to Manchester, then cancelled the bit of the High Speed 2 rail link that would go to Manchester.

Or did he? Perhaps not: someone close to No 10 has been rather sniffily briefing any client journalists who happen to pass that the decision has still not been taken. It is striking that no one is attempting to brief that the project will definitely go ahead, however.

There are so many things about this that are completely and utterly ridiculous. Firstly there’s the almost gleeful lack of interest in optics. I had genuinely assumed that ministers would hum and haw and tell us no decision had yet been made until well clear of the M60, but no: here’s Robert Peston on ITV to tell us the deed is done. The Prime Minister has gone to Manchester to tell the people of Manchester that, while those to their south can have their new railway, the people of Manchester themselves can get stuffed. It’s as if George Osborne had announced austerity in a Sure Start centre, and then pushed a baby off its high chair for good measure.

(The optics could, unbelievably, have been worse. At least Sunak did not, on this occasion, fly. Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, whose hands and department are all implicated in this one too, genuinely did. This led to an approving comment from David Frost, the former Brexit negotiator, that since it was already possible to get from London to Manchester in half an hour then HS2 was quite clearly unnecessary. And since David Frost has a history of smugly facing the exact opposite way to the electorate at any given moment, Hunt is presumably now extremely worried. But I digress.)

A bigger issue with this decision is that it’s not just those who want to travel from Manchester to Birmingham who stand to lose out. As I’ve said so often these last few years that even I’m bored of me, the point of the project isn’t speed, but capacity. Give fast trains their own line and you can run more slow ones too. As a result, this decision will make rail travel harder in the suburbs of Birmingham and Manchester, as well as between London and Liverpool, Cumbria or Glasgow. And all this at a time when, despite widespread predictions of ghost trains that followed the pandemic, our railways are pretty much full, with knock-on effects for passenger comfort and fare levels alike. At any rate, it’s far from just Manchester that is losing out. Perhaps that’s why Sunak was happy to make the announcement there.

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But perhaps the most baffling thing about all this is that the Prime Minister has decided to promise us a poorer, meaner future – and seems to genuinely think it’s a vote winner. I’m not convinced: HS2 has plenty of critics, but the most controversial part of the route is already under construction. So are the frequent tunnels bolted on to the project in a vain attempt to placate the Nimbys, and which are one of the main reasons the cost of the project has exploded. (Another, hilariously, is ministers’ inability to make a plan and stick to it.) In other words, the most expensive spending is locked in; the people who the project annoyed will remain annoyed. All Sunak has done is scrapped the bit of the project that might make it all politically and economically worth it.

So this is levelling up, Sunak style: investing in rich southern Tory areas, scrapping spending that would benefit poorer northern Labour ones, and not getting credit from anyone. He won’t shut up about how he believes in Britain, yet all he does is to tell it what it can’t do, making it a smaller, less ambitious place and then smirking for the cameras. This is Rishi Sunak’s Britain: the country that invented the Industrial Revolution, but which can no longer finish a single new railway.

[See also: On HS2, Labour is right to strike a note of caution]

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