Boris Johnson: Cutting HS2 route to Manchester would be betrayal of North

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Credit: Brandon Bell/Getty Images.Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Credit: Brandon Bell/Getty Images.
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Credit: Brandon Bell/Getty Images. | Getty Images
As controversy around HS2 deepens ahead of the Conservative Party Conference, former prime minister Boris Johnson hits out government saying we must be "out of our minds" to dump the northern leg of the rail project

Boris Johnson has said delaying or cutting the HS2 route to Manchester will be a betrayal of the North of England.

The former prime minister said “we must be out of our minds” if Conservative ministers are considering cutting off “the northern legs” of the high-speed rail project.

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The latest intervention by the politician who secured a landslide win for the Tories at the 2019 election — a victory secured on the back of a pledge to create more opportunities outside London and the South East — comes as the party prepares to meet in Manchester for its annual autumn conference on Sunday.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak refused to be drawn on the future of phase two of HS2 during dozens of interviews with regional broadcasters on Thursday.

And in an interview with The Sun, published on Friday, the Tory leader obfuscated when asked about whether 225mph trains would ever link Birmingham and Manchester.

There has been widespread speculation in recent days that Mr Sunak is preparing to either scrap or delay HS2’s Birmingham to Manchester leg after being warned the price tag for the whole project may have soared past £100 billion.

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Mr Sunak told The Sun that the main methods of travel were by car and bus, saying that was why his Government was filling in potholes and investing in rural bus services.

He said the North needed more than HS2, with connections required between the towns and cities of the region.

“East to west — that is the thing that the North wants and that is what we’re doing,” he said.

“We’ve got to invest in all these forms of transportation. That is how you really level up but also just do the things that matter to people and actually will change our country.”

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It comes as Mr Johnson, who Mr Sunak served under as chancellor, urged ministers to work through the financial challenges presented by HS2.

“We simply cannot afford to abandon this vision now — to panic, and throw up our hands, and say it is all too difficult,” he said in his column for the Daily Mail.

He argued that “all great infrastructure projects”, from London’s recently opened Elizabeth line to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Victorian-era Great Western Railway, go through budgetary “doubt and pain” but end up delivering returns on their initial investments.

He suggested that the private sector could be encouraged to “contribute” towards finishing HS2, pointing to how businesses were involved with investment in the Elizabeth line.

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Mr Johnson said that delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail — a link between the largest cities in the North, crossing over the Pennines — “only makes sense with the northern leg of HS2”.

“If we delay or cut the northern legs, if we truncate HS2 — then we are betraying the north of the country and the whole agenda of levelling up,” Mr Johnson said.

“Birmingham has already seen stunning investment on the back of HS2 — just look at the cranes.

“It is estimated that the GDP of Greater Manchester will double if we build the leg, and Manchester airport will benefit massively.

“Planning applications in Crewe are up fourfold.”

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He also criticised the decision to stop having a dedicated minister for HS2, saying it was a “great shame” the post was “abolished” in summer 2022 after he was ousted from No 10.

Ministers have already moved to pause parts of HS2 and axed sections in the North over cost fears.

The eastern leg between Birmingham and Leeds was reduced to a spur line which is due to end in the East Midlands.

It was confirmed in March that construction between Birmingham and Crewe would be delayed by two years and that services may not enter central London until the 2040s.

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Transport Secretary Mark Harper announced that work at Euston would be paused for two years as costs were forecast to almost double to £4.8 billion.

The pause means Old Oak Common, in the capital’s western suburbs, will be the railway’s only London station when services to and from Birmingham Curzon Street begin between 2029 and 2033.

According to The Independent, Mr Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt have seen a paper which suggested failing to rebuild Euston as planned under phase one of HS2 would lead to big queues and the “gross exceedance of standard passenger comfort levels” through overcrowding.

It also warned that station closures could become “commonplace” within the next decade, according to the newspaper, which said it had seen the details in a Government document marked “Official Sensitive”.

Work is well under way on creating the track between London and Birmingham as part of phase one of HS2, with extensive tunnelling having taken place.

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