Rishi Sunak faces backlash from former PMs over decision to axe HS2 northern leg

Rishi Sunak has faced criticism from his predecessors in Number 10 for losing a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” by cancelling the northern leg of HS2.

The Prime Minister defied senior Tories and business leaders to scrap HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester saying “the facts have changed” and the cost of the high-speed rail scheme had “more than doubled”.

But former Tory prime minister David Cameron said the decision would fuel the view that Britain cannot act for the long-term and is “heading in the wrong direction”.

Boris Johnson, another former Conservative prime minister, wrote “I agree” in response to Mr Cameron’s scathing post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Mr Sunak also found himself reported to police in Scotland over comments made about former first minister Nicola Sturgeon in his Tory conference speech.

Mr Sunak sought to make fun of the former SNP leader after she was arrested and questioned as part of Police Scotland’s investigation into her party’s finances – dubbed Operation Branchform.

Ms Sturgeon was released without charge following her arrest back in June.

The post-conference criticism came as Mr Sunak prepared to travel to Granada on Thursday to discuss migration and Ukraine at the European Political Community summit.

His keynote speech in Manchester saw him make several announcements, including a plan to phase out smoking, in a bid to pitch himself as a politician delivering “change” despite his party having been in power since 2010.

Mr Sunak confirmed HS2 will run from Euston in central London to Birmingham but will no longer extend beyond the West Midlands, with Manchester among the areas missing out.

Instead, Mr Sunak promised to use £36 billion of savings from scrapping sections of HS2 to fund a raft of other transport schemes.

He told backers of HS2 that the “facts have changed” and there was a need for “courage to change direction”.

Mr Cameron described the decision as the “wrong one”, adding: “It will help to fuel the views of those who argue that we can no longer think or act for the long-term as a country; that we are heading in the wrong direction.

“HS2 was about investing for the long-term, bringing the country together, ensuring a more balanced economy and delivering the Northern Powerhouse. We achieved historic, cross-party support, with extensive buy-in from city and local authority leaders across the Midlands and North of England.”

He said the announcement “throws away 15 years of cross-party consensus, sustained over six administrations, and will make it much harder to build consensus for any future long-term projects”.

Mr Cameron went on: “All across the world, we see transformative, long-term infrastructure projects completed or underway. They show countries on the rise, building for future generations, thinking big and getting things done.

“I regret this decision and in years to come I suspect many will look back at today’s announcement and wonder how this once-in-a-generation opportunity was lost.”

Mr Hunt wrote on Twitter in February 2020: “No HS2 = no ambition for our country just when the whole world is looking at us. Now is a time to be AMBITIOUS.”

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves highlighted the post and wrote: “How’s it going, Jeremy?”

Decisions taken by the Government risk making it harder for Labour to overturn the cuts should they secure power at the next general election.

Land earmarked for the HS2 routes now scrapped will not be protected for potential future expansion of the high-speed railway, the Department for Transport has confirmed.

Railway consultant William Barter described the decision as “ludicrous” and an act of “spite”.

Phase 2a – between the West Midlands and Crewe – safeguarding will be formally lifted in the coming weeks.

For Phase 2b – between the West Midlands and Manchester – safeguarding will be amended by summer 2024 to allow for plans under Northern Powerhouse Rail.

West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin criticised Mr Sunak for his “pure electioneering” after his transport announcements.

The Labour politician told Channel 4 News: “This doesn’t work for north-to-south, it doesn’t work east-to-west, and what we’re seeing in this plan is a decade of rail replacement buses with electrification.”

On the allegations of contempt levelled against Mr Sunak for his joke at the expense of Ms Sturgeon, Alba’s Mr McEleny said Operation Branchform should be “free to pursue its investigation fearlessly without interference from Rishi Sunak”.

He added as a result he was “formally complaining about the offence of Contempt of Court”, requesting police to investigate this.

Mr McEleny said: “In Scotland contempt applies from arrest, not from charging. Operation Branchform is investigating serious matters of the utmost importance the Scotland and trust in politics.

“It is too important a matter to allow interference from the Prime Minister in this act of contempt when many people await the facts of Police Scotland’s investigation.”

Both Police Scotland and Downing Street have been contacted for comment.

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