Rishi Sunak refuses to apologise for axing HS2 amid backlash from former PMs

The prime minister went against senior Tories and business leaders to scrap HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester, ITV News Political Reporter Shehab Khan reports

Rishi Sunak has refused to apologise for cancelling the northern leg of HS2, despite heavy criticism from his predecessors in Number 10.

The prime minister went against 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".

Fellow former Conservative leader Boris Johnson, wrote "I agree" in response to Mr Cameron's scathing post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

In an interview recorded after his Tory conference speech and broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Thursday, the prime minister was asked whether he would apologise for the Conservative Party's "false promises" made to northerners over many years.

Mr Sunak replied: "No. What I want to say to everybody is that what we're doing is going to be better for our country.

"You keep using the word scrap, but what we're doing is replacing HS2 with something that's going to benefit far more people in far more places and far quicker.

"Every penny that would have been spent on this project, £36 billion, is going to be reinvested in every form of transportation, not just heavy rail. and in every part of our country."

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.

In the the run up to the announcement, Mr Sunak said no decision had been made on scrapping the Manchester leg of HS2. But ITV News revealed that a post he shared via X on Wednesday - a video of him outlining why he is scrapping the rest of HS2 - was recorded in Downing Street at least three days before he travelled to Manchester for the Tory party conference.

Asked about the clip, Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: "I don't really know why people are getting so het up with this particular issue."

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

He told backers of HS2 there was a need for "courage to change direction", but Mr Cameron described the decision as the "wrong one".

David Cameron has criticised the prime minister for 'heading in the wrong direction'. Credit: PA

He added: "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".

Labour mocked Chancellor Jeremy Hunt over the policy change by highlighting previous remarks he made while a backbencher.

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 (DfT) has confirmed.

Under a process known as safeguarding, land on those routes - including extensions to Crewe, Manchester and the East Midlands - was protected to stop conflicting developments taking place.

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.

Mr Sunak, meanwhile, has now been reported to police in Scotland, over comments made about former first minister Nicola Sturgeon in his Conservative Party conference speech.

The prime minister 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.

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