The Prime Minister on Tuesday insisted he was willing to take a political hit to secure Britain’s long-term interests as speculation soars over the future of HS2.
Speaking to broadcasters at the Conservative conference in Manchester, Rishi Sunak refused to confirm whether he plans to announce the high-speed railway will stop at Birmingham when he delivers his keynote speech on Wednesday.
“All I can say is I’m not going to be forced into a premature decision because it is good for someone’s TV programme,” he told BBC Breakfast, adding he preferred not to “chase the headline, and that’s what I did with net zero”.
“What I want to do is make the right decision for the country. This is an enormous amount of people’s money, taxpayers’ money, everybody watching, billions and billions of pounds.
“We shouldn’t be rushed into things like that. What people would expect from me is to take the time to go over it properly and make sure we make the right long-term decisions for the country.”
The HS2 speculation risks undercutting the Prime Minister’s conference theme of “Long-term decisions for a brighter future”, but he was insistent that the conference remained on track.
Allies insists that with an election expected next year, Mr Sunak is intent on drawing up a sober contrast to what they call the “flip-flopping” of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
But the PM has already diluted one flagship long-term plan concerning the drive to net zero emissions by 2050, including by delaying a ban on sales of non-electric vehicles by five years to 2035.
Mark Reynolds, chief executive of the Mace construction group which is building the planned Euston terminal for HS2, told Radio 4 Today’s programme: “I have actually spoken to the Prime Minister and his advisor and he dodged the question and moved on very quickly.
“It’s one of those biggest opportunities we’ve missed in a lifetime. But actually what it does do is undermine investment in the UK,” he said.
Mr Sunak is reportedly set to hold an emergency Cabinet meeting to sign off the measures during his party conference in the city most directly hit by the cut.
He is then likely to confirm the decision in his speech to the Conservative membership on Wednesday as he possibly softens the blow by spending on other projects for the North.
The Times reported that after intense lobbying from within his Cabinet he will say the line will terminate in Euston, in central London, rather than the western suburb of Old Oak Common.
Tory mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street made an impassioned last-ditch appeal to Mr Sunak not to cancel the link between Birmingham and Manchester.
Accusing Mr Sunak of “cancelling the future”, he did not rule out resigning over the issue, and said: “You will be turning your back on an opportunity to level up – a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
“You will indeed be damaging your international reputation as a place to invest.”
But Rob Holden, who was chairman of the HS1 train line project that created Eurostar and was also chief executive of Crossrail, said the HS2 project “was ill-conceived” because it was originally designed to run at an unrealistic top speed of 400kph (249mph), now reduced to 360kph (224mph).
“The cost of that relative to building a railway like HS1 at 300kph (186mph) – that’s most lines in continental Europe – is exponentially higher, simply because of the engineering, the environmental mitigations are very, very expensive,” he said on the Today programme.
Mr Holden added: “There’s no doubt that the costs have risen and that speaks for a lack of control.
“But the overall cost of the railway should never have been as much as it was, as I say because it was designed to operate at a speed which is not appropriate for this country.”