Tory MPs have called on the Government to scrap the entirety of the HS2 project amid reports that the second phase of the project running to Manchester could be shelved.
Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are poised to cancel the HS2 rail line between Birmingham and Manchester due to concerns over spiralling costs and delays to the project.
In March, the Government confirmed parts of the scheme, which is already significantly behind schedule, will be delayed as a result of escalating costs.
The move has been condemned by Northern leaders who branded it as “politically idiotic and economic vandalism”.
Downing Street last week repeatedly refused to guarantee the Birmingham to Manchester link would go ahead despite admitting that “spades are already in the ground” as part of the construction of the railway.
Speaking during an Urgent Question in the Commons, Greg Smith, Conservative MP for Buckingham, called for the Government to scrap the entire HS2 line from London if the section to Manchester does not go ahead.
“Even when this project had arms and legs and eyebrows going across the whole country, the business case was always accepted to be very, very weak and that we cannot really afford it as a nation,” he said.
“So, I hope the Government does scrap HS2 north of Birmingham to save many more communities from the human misery that my constituents endure through construction every single day of the week.”
He added that cancelling the next phase of the project would leave a “literally legless stump” between Birmingham and London on which construction has already begun.
Mr Smith continued: “Will my honourable friend take the message back to his colleagues and to the Treasury that we can’t afford it and that what’s left of phase one should be scrapped as well?”
His concerns were echoed by Iain Stewart, Conservative MP for Milton Keynes South and chair of the Transport Committee.
He said it would be an “enormous false economy” to continue only run HS2 to Birmingham, and that this “would not realise the full benefits of the line and communities will have been enormously impacted for no great benefit”.
“Can my honourable friend take that message to the Treasury: either do it properly or don’t do it at all,” Mr Stewart added.
Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said HS2 would provide a slower journey between London and Birmingham than current train services if plans to slash the project are enacted.
“First they slashed Northern Powerhouse Rail, then they binned HS2 to Leeds, then they announced the line would terminate at Old Oak Common for years to come, and now it looks like they are considering cutting the North of England out in its entirety,” she said.
“If this is true, what are we left with? The most expensive railway track in the world that thanks to terminating in Acton will be a longer journey between Birmingham and central London than the one passengers currently enjoy.
She added: “Will the minister urgently explain if the leaked photograph on Friday reflects his Government’s position to slash phase 2 altogether?”
Other Conservative MPs demanded clarity on whether the project would go ahead, with senior Tory MP Sir William Cash asking: “Can we have a straight answer to this white elephant, are we in fact going to have the continuation of the line from Birmingham to Manchester or not?”
Transport minister Richard Holden responded that “ministers will continue to keep the House updated as they have done regarding HS2”.
Conservative MP Mary Robinson said her region “must have improved connectivity” to London and other cities in the north, adding: “Our country will only be truly levelled up with a connected northern region reaching its full potential.
“Uncertainty around phase 2 is unhelpful. And I would urge my honourable friend to consider the importance of northern infrastructure commitments to businesses across the region.”
Addressing the Commons, transport minister Richard Holden refused to be drawn into confirming whether HS2 would run to Manchester or not.
He attacked Labour’s conflicted stance on HS2 by contrasting senior Labour figure Pat McFadden’s cautious answer on the cost of the railway when asked about it by the BBC, with the party’s commitment to build HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail in full in a recent policy document.
Mr Holden said: “No mention of how they’d pay for this combined £140bn spending commitment. Same old Labour. While the shadow Chancellor tries to talk tough about ironclad discipline, [shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh] goes around the country promising hundreds of billions of pounds of unfunded spending on rail alone.
“You can’t trust a word they say on transport spending, on immigration, on housing. All have unravelled over the last week as the Labour Party says one thing and does another.”
Labour shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds later reaffirmed the party’s pledge to build HS2 in full, however. He told the BBC’s PM programme: “We will build HS2 in full and we will build Northern Powerhouse Rail in full. That’s the clear pledge that we’ve given.
“If we do end up in a situation where the Government has spent well over £45bn on an infrastructure project that isn’t even going to go all the way from Birmingham to London, what an indictment of Tory incomeptence and waste that is.”
Asked to define what building it “in full” meant, he said: “It’s both Manchester and indeed the eastern leg… to Leeds.”
SNP transport spokesman Gavin Newlands joked the minister had given an “astonishing performance”, adding: “In attacking Labour on cost, he seems to be admitting what we all know – that phase 2 seems to be going. What an utter shambles, financially, operationally and politically.”