Rishi Sunak faces furious backlash amid reports HS2 to Manchester has been shelved

ITV News' Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks and Political Editor Robert Peston report from the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester

Rishi Sunak is facing a backlash from Tories, businesses and northern leaders over a murky announcement to scrap the HS2 leg to Manchester.

On Tuesday, ITV News broke the news that the north west will no longer get a high speed rail connection to London.

The prime minister has instead decided to allocate billions previously ringfenced for the project to other transport projects in the north, ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston reports.

But the PM is still insisting no final decision on scrapping the rail line has been taken.

He told ITV's Good Morning Britain he is "not going to comment into all of that speculation" in an interview on Tuesday morning.

Mr Sunak is expected 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 HS2 project has been a touchy subject for Tories for weeks and cancelling the Manchester leg while in the city for the Conservative Party Conference has received a furious response.

One of HS2's key architects, former chancellor George Osborne, said it would be a "tragedy" if Mr Sunak abandoned the project and urged him to reconsider.

"I hope it's not too late and the Cabinet sticks with the policy of previous Conservative and Labour administrations and goes ahead with the project."

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.

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.”

An expanded Northern Powerhouse Rail project linking cities and cash for potholes and bus routes could be announced to sweeten the pill of curtailing the project feared to have spiralled past £100 billion.

But the decision would be overruling the concerns of Tory former prime ministers Boris Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron.

Labour’s mayor in Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said putting the brakes on HS2 would be “profoundly depressing” and leave northerners treated as “second class citizens”.

Henri Murison, chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said backtracking on the project would be “madness”.

Downing Street said no final decisions had been made but a Treasury spokesperson would not deny the reports.

The Number 10 spokesperson said: "These reports are incorrect. No final decisions have been taken on Phase 2 of HS2."

But a package appeared to have been signed off by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt on Monday.

A spokesperson for Mr Hunt said the decision would be announced in "due course" when asked to deny the reports.

Prime Minister Sunak, giving a string of local broadcast interviews on Thursday, hit out at “speculation” over HS2 but declined to confirm or deny reports the north-western leg was being abandoned.

He shrugged off concerns his indecision over HS2 is damaging investment, and insisted it was important for taxpayers to get value for money on huge infrastructure projects.

It is estimated costs have already soared past £100 billion, even though the Leeds leg has already been scrapped.

The first estimate in 2010 of the proposed high speed rail link between London and the north was £30 billion, with this raising to up to £36 billion in the following year’s prices.

The PM many times noted during the various interviews “there are spades in the ground” to build phase one of HS2 between Birmingham and Old Oak Common in the capital’s western suburbs.

Fending off criticism over terminating the line six miles to the west of central London, instead of at Euston, Mr Sunak said Old Oak Common is a “world-class station” with “fantastic” connections to most London destinations.

“I don’t think it’s right to talk down Old Oak Common in any way shape or form,” he told BBC London.

Questioned over the “mess” of the rail network in the North, Mr Sunak acknowledged there are “challenges” which he blamed on the Covid-19 pandemic.

He suggested most journeys are made by car, saying: “Making sure that our roads, the potholes are maintained well, making sure that our bus services are running well, that’s all important.”

Mr Sunak had said he will “probably be driving” to the Tory conference “because train strikes have been put in place, which is very disappointing actually at a time when people are trying to just get around and do their regular business”.

“I would be catching the train on Saturday if there weren’t strikes,” he said.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know…