Sunak to defy backlash by axing HS2 route to Manchester

The Prime Minister will seek to portray himself as a radical reformer fixing a ‘broken’ system.

Rishi Sunak is expected to defy a backlash from Tory colleagues and northern leaders by abandoning the high-speed rail route to Manchester as he seeks to portray himself as a radical reformer.

The Prime Minister is expected to use his Conservative conference speech in the northern city to axe the HS2 leg from Birmingham as he criticises 30 years of a “broken” system incentivising “the easy decision, not the right one”.

With the Tories having been in charge for the majority of the last three decades, Sunak will pitch himself as the man to “fundamentally change our country” ahead of an election expected next year.

He is widely expected to bring the axe down on the high-speed rail project that was due to connect Manchester with Birmingham, and on to central London, but has so far refused to confirm the plans.

Sunak is expected to pledge to reinvest around £36 billion of savings into road and rail schemes in the North and Midlands.

But critics, including Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, warned those schemes would not be feasible without key parts of the infrastructure that would have formed HS2.

Cabinet minister Grant Shapps said the public must wait for Sunak’s speech to “hear exact confirmation” on HS2 as he sought to argue it will still run, but indicating not on high-speed rails between Birmingham and Manchester.

The Defence Secretary, who was until September last year transport secretary, told BBC Breakfast: “He’s taken a very close, careful look at that second part of the HS2 line – I keep reading that HS2 will be scrapped, HS2 will actually run.

“That second part of the line, the balance that has to be made given that bit has not been built yet, is whether it makes sense to carry on building that given the world has changed.”

Shapps argued that the decision shows the Prime Minister is not thinking about the “very short term” and is instead considering “difficult decisions”.

“It’s much harder to change tracks on something like this when you see the world’s changed than it is just to plough on, it will attract criticism when you do these things. He’s prepared to take those long-term, difficult decisions because he thinks we can get to a bright future by doing them,” he added.

Shapps claimed that Manchester will still experience a “much faster journey time”, insisting it was due to the coronavirus pandemic that the curtailing was needed.

He said: “HS2 trains will run to Manchester, so they’ll still come into Manchester Piccadilly, they’ll still run to Leeds, there will still be a much faster journey time than there has been in the past.

“And not just because some of the section will be actually conventional high speed, or new high-speed rail, but also because even the older section can have further upgrades to, for example, its digital infrastructure which is the way the signalling works.”

He also argued at least some of the money saved will be used to benefit “large parts of the North”, amid suggestions cash for potholes, buses and train upgrades will be dished out.

The Tory mayor for the West Midlands, Andy Street, earlier said axing HS2 to Manchester would be “an incredible political gaffe” allowing opponents to accuse Sunak of having decided to “shaft the North” while in Manchester.

Street put off a trip to Munich to drum up investment for his region, instead choosing to stay in Manchester.

“We intend to listen to the PM’s speech and respond accordingly,” his spokesman said.

Sunak has repeatedly ducked questions about scaling back HS2 despite northern leaders, businesses and former Tory premiers Boris Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron all warning against the move.

But the Prime Minister did on Tuesday say the costs of the project had gone “far beyond” what had been predicted, and the sums involved were “enormous”.

The HS2 scheme was given a budget of £55.7 billion in 2015 but costs have ballooned, with an estimate of up to £98 billion – in 2019 prices – in 2020.

Since then, soaring inflation will have pushed costs even higher.

Reports suggested he will give the go-ahead for the scheme to reach central London in Euston, rather than terminating in the western suburbs of Old Oak Common, after pressure from within the Cabinet.

In a conference centre built from a former railway station, Sunak will reflect on his first year in No 10 and acknowledge a “feeling that Westminster is a broken system”.

“It isn’t anger, it is an exhaustion with politics. In particular, politicians saying things, and then nothing ever changing,” he is expected to say.

“And you know what? People are right. Politics doesn’t work the way it should.

“We’ve had 30 years of a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one – 30 years of vested interests standing in the way of change.”

He will accuse Labour – recording a consistently double-digit lead over the Conservatives – of failing to “set out their stall” under Sir Keir Starmer and betting on voters’ “apathy”.

And Sunak will argue he is the reformer, saying: “Politicians spent more time campaigning for change than actually delivering it.

“Our mission is to fundamentally change our country.”

Sunak has struggled to keep the conference on track amid Tory criticism over HS2 and his predecessor Liz Truss drawing big conference crowds as she demanded immediate tax cuts to “make Britain grow again” a year after she left office after a chaotic 49 days.

The Prime Minister instead compared himself to Margaret Thatcher, who prioritised tackling inflation during her premiership between 1979 and 1990.

The Tory conference also saw Suella Braverman use her conference speech to warn of a “hurricane” of migrants, comments which caused unease among some senior Conservatives.

Mrs Braverman said: “The wind of change that carried my own parents across the globe in the 20th century was a mere gust compared to the hurricane that is coming.

“Because today, the option of moving from a poorer country to a richer one is not just a dream for billions of people. It’s an entirely realistic prospect.”

But Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch said: “We have to be very careful about how we explain and express immigration policies, so that people aren’t getting echoes of things that were less palatable.”

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