Britain's business bosses have urged Rishi Sunak to stop dithering and finally reveal the future of HS2 after the prime minister refused 12 times to rule out scrapping the northern leg.
The Independent has raised concerns that the ongoing uncertainty is causing investors to pull out of the UK, following the first revelations of Mr Sunak and chancellor Jeremy Hunt's plans to scale back the high-speed rail line.
In an excruciating round of interviews with BBC local radio stations, Mr Sunak repeatedly refused to commit to phase 2 - and instead suggested that fixing potholes was 'priority No 1' and blamed Covid for failing railways.
The TUC and other trade unions had called for the Sunak government to hold an 'emergency summit' to find a solution to the cost of the route between Birmingham and Manchester as they called on the prime minister to commit to building it in full.
Manchester Airports Group became the latest major business group to call on Sunak to be clear, urging him on Thursday to commit to building the northern leg in full.
The North has been held back for too long due to the lack of an integrated transport network, said Ken O, the incoming chief executive. The Sunak government must be clear in its support for these transformative schemes, he said.
The business leaders were frustrated as Mr Sunak repeatedly ducked questions on the future of HS2 during a series of awkward pre-conference interviews - blaming Covid for the failing railways.
The pandemic has forced everyone to stop travelling on the rail network, which has made running train services'very difficult'.
Mr Sunak and Mr Hunt have said there were'spades in the ground' on phase 1, but declined to say whether he was committed to phase 2 which The Independent revealed Mr Sunak and Mr Hunt are considering scrapping or kicking into the long grass to save cash.
With Mr Sunak not expected to set out his cost-cutting plan until next month, Chris Fletcher, policy director at the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, also called on Mr Sunak to end the'madness' of uncertainty and commit to the northern leg fully.
Mark Reynolds, the chief executive of HS2's new London station, also voiced a stinging message to Sunak about short-termism, saying that 'we all end up worse off' if the project is scaled back.
UKHospitality's chief executive, Kate Nicholls, said pubs, clubs and restaurants were 'eagerly awaiting' Sunak's decision. She added that connecting northern cities would be a huge 'boost' for companies, as Northern Powerhouse Rail is as important if not more so than HS2'.
The former chairman of HS2 responded to the ministers' cost claims, blaming 'Short-sighted' Tory ministers for the high-speed rail project's spiralling price tag.
Allan Cook, who run the project between 2018 and 2021, accused the government of trying to duck responsibility and claimed it would be a'scandalous waste of money' if Sunak and Mr Hunt end the line at Birmingham.
Sunak is said to be considering an option to quell a Tory backlash by delaying the Birmingham-to-Manchester line by up to seven years.
There are indications he may announce a string of regional transport improvements in an effort to limit the political fallout - including bringing forward Northern Powerhouse Rail between Manchester and Leeds.
On Thursday, the Tees Valley Tory mayor Ben Houchen offered Mr Sunak his support for cuts by calling HS2 a 'white elephant' and condemning its 'ridiculous' cost.
If we reallocated the money we could deliver NPR in full and give every northern leader enough money to transform local transport in their areas and still save the taxpayer £80bn, he said.
senior red-wall Tories in the influential Northern Research Group have signalled they are willing to accept a delay to the northern leg of HS2 - so long as the PM commits to east-west rail projects.
Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, has suggested that he could be open to a delay if the government commits to a section of HS2 between Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly.