The foreign secretary has cast further doubt on whether or not HS2 will ever reach Manchester, despite telling Sky News the prime minister is “absolutely committed to levelling up” – which includes the high-speed rail project.
The government only has until Tuesday this week to tell MPs about a large change to plans for the railway line, before the Commons then breaks for the conference recess until 16 October.
Labour is also being cautious with the multi-billion pound railway, with shadow chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster Pat McFadden telling the BBC that “we want to see the railway being built, but we’ve also – like everything else – got to look at the cost of everything we do”.
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In March this year, the government announced a two-year delay to the section of the project between Birmingham and Manchester, with services not expected to begin running on that part of the line until the 2040s.
Some estimates put the total cost of HS2 at over £100bn, and the project was rated “unachievable” by the infrastructure watchdog.
Cleverly shies away from confirming Manchester extension
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is the most senior minister to be asked about recent reports the branch to Manchester may now be completely axed.
He told Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips: “It’s an important piece of infrastructure, the prime minister is absolutely committed to levelling up. This is part of that levelling up.”
Asked if this meant the line would run to Manchester, the foreign secretary said: “We’ve always got to make sure that the sequencing is right.
“What leaders in devolved government want, what investors in the UK want, is predictability – and therefore we will make sure they know exactly what is going on.”
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This mirrors a similar lack of commitment and clarity to the Manchester branch this month – from both the Home Office minister Chris Philp, and the prime minister’s spokesman.
Concerns about whether the route would reach Manchester at all arose after The Independent published images showing what appeared to be government briefing documents.
These outlined how the government has already spent £2.3bn on stage two of the railway from Birmingham to Manchester, but that up to £35bn could be saved by abandoning the phase.
What’s going on with HS2?
“We’ve always got to make sure that the sequencing is right.”
These were the words of the Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, as he pointedly avoided confirming that the high-speed railway line known as HS2 would be built to Manchester on Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips.
To unpick the lingo, “sequencing” essentially means when various bits of the line will be built.
There was a change in “sequencing” (as ministers would no doubt call it) earlier this year, when the transport secretary delayed the Birmingham to Crewe leg and pushed back the Euston opening.
At the time, Whitehall officials were noticeably vague on whether the new line would be built to Manchester at all, with the Department for Transport taking several days and several phone calls just to confirm that was still government policy.
Now that looks to be in doubt with some interested parties expecting an announcement this week.
As ever, money will be the motivating factor for any change – with speculation that cash saved on the project could be freed up for the East/West ‘Northern Powerhouse’ rail link or for other pre-election giveaways.
The big political risk is ending up with a hugely expensive train line that doesn’t reach Central London but doesn’t reach the North of England either (remember, Boris Johnson trimmed back the Leeds leg while he was in charge).
The timing may also be awkward given the Conservatives are due in Manchester for their annual conference in a fortnight’s time.
Of course, Tory MPs travelling there by rail will have problems anyway – as train drivers are walking out on strike at the beginning and end of the four-day event.
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Financial decisions are currently being made by the chancellor, Treasury and government as a whole in the run-up to the autumn financial statement in November.
Mr McFadden’s refusal to commit to the branch gives Labour room to manoeuvre if the line to Manchester is cut – as reinstating the commitment would add tens of billions of pounds to the party’s spending plans.