HS2 cancellation takes centre stage at Conservative Party conference

That England is divided by a north vs south tussle for resources has become the theme of the gathering in Manchester

Rishi Sunak faced a barrage of questions on Tuesday when he faced the media from the conference arena in Manchester. Getty Images
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Britain's new Defence Secretary Grant Shapps has many issues to grapple with, from the war in Ukraine to aircraft carriers without fighter jets to defend them at sea.

Not even Mr Shapps was immune to the all-consuming issue of the $100 billion dilemma facing this week's Conservative Party conference: how to cut costs of the HS2 railway mega-project that has become a symbol of the ruling party's commitment to northern parts of England.

Taking the stage in a soundproof booth at a fringe event, Mr Shapps got into his stride by describing himself as an “enormously experienced” manager of large government departments delivering multibillion-pound budgets.

When it was pointed out that he was the transport secretary responsible for HS2 oversight for several years, Mr Shapps, who left that position last year, said he had closely monitored it but conceded the essential point about budget overruns. “It was under control when I was there,” he said.

Rishi Sunak faced a barrage of questions on Tuesday when he faced the media from the conference arena in Manchester. Like Mr Shapps, the Prime Minister was defiant in response to accusations that the high-speed line was a national disappointment.

He was also forced to deny the drip, drip reporting on his plans to cancel a leg of the building north of Birmingham to Manchester had consumed conference management over the weekend and ahead of his leader's speech on Wednesday. “No, I don't think that,” he said. “Actually we are having a great conference. The mood here is great.”

What is troubling Mr Sunak is that cost of the mostly tunnel fast train service have leapt by tens of billions across a decade long set of estimates. The man who took over the Conservative leadership less than a year ago is believed to think he could raid some of that projected expenditure for spending elsewhere in northern England.

Escalating costs

So far for Mr Sunak, the issue is one of leadership and competence in managing the country's finances. “It's clear that the costs of this programme has escalated far beyond what anyone thought at the beginning,” he said. “I know there's lots of speculation on it, but what I would say is I'll approach this in the same way I approach everything in this job, I will take the time to look at it properly, get across the detail and then decide what's right for the country.”

“It's obviously not my money – it's taxpayers' money and we should make the right decisions on these things.”

Speaking Tuesday he made reference to his intervention to change the focus of net-zero policies last month, something that shifted the polls in the aftermath of the announcement. “I think that's what the country wants to see – people who make the right long-term decision, don't take the easy way out, don't chase the headlines,” he said. “And that's what I did with net zero.”

Channelling his political nickname “King of the North”, Labour's Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has appeared on balconies overlooking the Manchester conference secure zone demanding a meeting with the Prime Minister on the HS2 decisions. “If they're about to pull the plug, that would just be a desperate act of a dying government with nowhere left to go,” he believes, saying promises of extra spending elsewhere cannot be credible. “You scrap HS2, you are scrapping the possibility of a new east-west line across the north of England any time soon. We will not accept vague commitments about improving east-west links – we really won't – because people here have waited far too long for a functional railway and we are not going to sell our own residents down the river.”

Others have talked about the potential damage to national prestige in the about turn.

“It is madness to leave what was meant to be the UK's flagship infrastructure project like this,” said Henri Murison, a government appointee as chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. “Unless we can protect the hybrid bill, which is currently going through parliament and which authorises the tunnel between Manchester and Manchester airport, this means the end for Northern Powerhouse Rail and levelling up as a whole is finished.”

Even Conservatives are hostile to the idea that the line could now finish in the country's second city Birmingham, possibly not even with a central London terminus at Euston. The Conservative mayor of the West Midlands region Andy Street has pleaded with Mr Sunak not to cancel the link between Birmingham and Manchester.

“You will be turning your back on an opportunity to level up – a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” he said in rain drenched doorstep at the conference. “You will indeed be damaging your international reputation as a place to invest.”

Updated: October 03, 2023, 10:46 AM