Cabinet opens up over HS2 plan as Tory leaders join Tory leaders

Cabinet opens up over HS2 plan as Tory leaders join Tory leaders

A major cabinet split has opened up over Rishi Sunak's plan to scrap the northern leg of the HS2 as top Tory leaders join ministers in pushing the prime minister to rethink the cancellation.

The Independent understands minister Michael Gove and transport secretary Mark Harper are'very unhappy' about the prime minister's plan to scrap the route from Birmingham to Manchester.

In one of the biggest political stories of this year, Sunak revealed that he was in secret talks - dubbed Project Redwood - with his chancellor Jeremy Hunt to scrap the second phase of the project.

Former chancellor George Osborne and former prime minister Lord Heseltine described the proposal as a 'gross act of vandalism' that would end up being a case of economic self-harm.

After the story broke, Downing Street repeatedly stone-walled before ministers accepted talks over the most dramatic decision in years to stop a £34bn infrastructure spend were taking place.

The story has triggered unprecedented fallout, with two former prime ministers attacking Sunak amid a cascade of criticism and cabinet divisions. Boris Johnson and David Cameron were joined by ex-chancellor Philip Hammond in urging the PM not to cut the high-speed rail route.

Sunak and Mr Hunt are believed to have been surprise by the major backlash from business chiefs, northern mayors and senior Tories, and are expected to have delayed a final decision and announcement until after next week's party conference.

A source close to Mr Gove said the prime minister did not'recognise' the idea of a cabinet rift, while a source for Mr Harper said the claim was 'completely untrue'.

Downing Street denied there was ever a plan to announce cuts to HS2 this week, with a No 10 spokeswoman saying normal spending discussions were taking place ahead of the chancellor's autumn statement in November.

A document details the financial details of the crunch meeting between Mr Hunt and Mr Sunak was carried into No 10 on Monday. Although £2.3bn has already been spent on preparations for phase two, the Redwood solution suggested that £3bn would be saved by discontinuing any future plans.

Sunak and Hunt are believed to have been considering whether HS2 north of Birmingham could be delayed for up to seven years in order to move costs into a future parliament kicking phase two into the long grass.

Northern Tory MPs remain hopeful parts of the project can be rescued. They have raised it with the party whips and are pushing to speak with the PM and chancellor in a bid to save key parts of the project and get guarantees on Northern Powerhouse Rail investment.

Some of the pro-HS2 Tories will be able to live with phase 2a from Birmingham to Crewe being delayed, as long as crucial parts of phase 2b - the Crewe to Manchester section - are accelerated. The Tory rebels want to see a high-speed section between Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Airport.

In the Times, Mr Osborne and Lord Heseltine said governments are remembered for what they build and create, making this mistake and yours may only be known for what it cancelled and curtailed.

Lord Heseltine said he would leave the project as a 'toy town' rail line. A very clear signal that the levelling up agenda has been put on a deep freeze has been put on a very clear signal, he said.

The Tory mayor of West Midlands, Andy Street, said the northern leg will be the'most expensive white elephant in UK history'. Mr Johnson has vowed not to'mutilate HS2', and Cameron is believed to have privately raised concerns about the possibility that the high-speed rail line could be abolished.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said he would write to Sunak to warn him that scrapping the HS2 would 'rip the heart out of Northern Powerhouse Rail' and create a 'north-south chasm'.

The Labour mayor insists that if Sunak wants to avoid HS2 he should call a general election and get a mandate first.

It is understandable that the government still plans to cut the southern part of HS2, terminating Old Oak Common and not continuing to Euston, sparking fresh outrage on Monday. The damage would create a 'commercial and operational mess', experts said.

The chaos surrounding HS2 makes Paul Johnson 'want to weep' and warned a truncated project would be a 'total waste' of money.

Dozens of leading business chiefs - including Manchester Airports Group and Virgin Money - signed a letter to the government urging HS2 to be built in full. A Group of 10 vice-chancellors of universities in the West Midlands has also called on Sunak to commit to high-speed rail.

No 10 repeatedly declined to comment on speculation about the future of HS2 on Monday - but said there was precedent for delaying parts of the line due to 'affordability'.