How Rishi Sunak decided to slash the UK’s troubled HS2 rail project

In July 2022 Rishi Sunak did not want to kill HS2: he wanted to save it.

When he stood to be Tory leader and UK prime minister against Liz Truss, Sunak claimed he supported the high speed rail project and even wanted to reinstate the Birmingham to Leeds leg, which had been axed by Boris Johnson.

Little more than a year later, Sunak stood in front of the Conservative conference in Manchester to claim a “false consensus” had built up around the project, whose costs were out of control and whose economic case had been shot to pieces by a fall in business travel after the Covid pandemic.

Sunak announced on Wednesday at the Tory conference that HS2 would no longer go to Manchester, let alone Leeds. Instead it would stop at Birmingham with £36bn of savings switched to other transport projects across the country.

The cabinet was asked to rubber-stamp the decision on Wednesday morning in a 45-minute meeting. Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, was said to be among those with misgivings, but resistance would have been futile. This was one of the “radical” decisions Sunak claimed would transform Britain.

The genesis of this U-turn, which Sunak announced in the very city to which HS2 was intended to run, began last autumn, not long after he entered Downing Street when Truss was forced out of office. It was then that he turned his attention to the problematic high-speed rail scheme and the price tag that had ballooned under successive Tory governments.

In February the FT revealed that Sunak has authorised major cuts and delays under two secret initiatives called “Project Silverlight” and “Operation Blue Diamond” to find cost cuts.

A month later ministers confirmed they would delay the building of the Birmingham to Crewe leg of HS2, dubbed phase 2a, as well as the final stretch of line to the south from Old Oak Common in west London to Euston. Mark Harper, transport secretary, blamed “headwinds from inflation” for the decision. 

But while those changes postponed some of the medium-term costs of the project, Sunak was already turning his mind to finding bigger savings from the project as parliament broke up for the summer recess, according to his aides.

The protests of civic leaders, including the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, had no effect in saving HS2 © Charlie Bibby/FT

Sunak’s move was part of a broader attempt to reset his government’s dire polling numbers and review policies inherited from his predecessors, including some net zero policies like the 2030 ban on new sales of petrol and diesel cars, which has since been delayed.

The scrapping of large sections of HS2 is the completion of a dream of Downing Street adviser Andrew Gilligan and former Downing Street aide Dominic Cummings, both of whom tried and failed to persuade their former boss Boris Johnson to kill the project.

“Dom has always been very vocally anti HS2 and he and Gilligan tried to kill it under Boris,” said one Tory adviser. Gilligan is now back in Number 10, while old colleagues of Cummings, an early backer of Sunak as a future prime minister, remain at Sunak’s side.

While aides started to discuss the ramifications of cutting HS2 in half, they also turned their minds to ways to spend the estimated £36bn that would be saved from the manoeuvre. “We always wanted it to go to other public transport schemes up north that would be easier and quicker to deliver,” said one adviser.

But the secret discussions were thrown into disarray on September 12, 2023, when a photographer who tweets under the name “PoliticalPics” took a long-lens snap of an official clutching a paper headlined “CX-PM bilat Redwood tables”. 

Redwood was the code name for Sunak’s latest secret plan. The paper snapped by the photographer, whose real name is Steve Back, showed the various savings from axing portions of the railway and gave a figure of £2.3bn for the cash already spent on the northern leg of the project. 

The Independent newspaper’s story based on the picture caused a major headache for Sunak’s team, which was far from being ready to make a public announcement. The following morning the government insisted that HS2 was still going ahead, but would not commit to it reaching Manchester.

In the coming days the growing political backlash against Sunak’s plan went into overdrive as four former prime ministers — Labour’s Gordon Brown and Conservatives’ David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson — urged him not to scale back HS2.

Downing Street adviser Andrew Gilligan tried and failed to persuade his former boss Boris Johnson to kill the HS2 project. © Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images

Boris Johnson, who was prime minister until last year, said that scrapping half of the project was “desperate” and “Treasury-driven nonsense”.

But Sunak’s mind was already made up, according to senior figures in the government. One Tory strategist said he was never going to bow to pressure from his predecessors. Indeed Sunak made great play in his conference speech of how he would make a break from a “30-year-old status quo” in British politics, spanning prime ministers back to John Major, the Conservative who succeeded Margaret Thatcher.

“It’s misjudging something about Rishi Sunak. That pressure — the kind that most other politicians buckle under — is for him a sign he’s doing something right,” said one adviser.

Despite Sunak’s protestations leading up to conference that a decision on HS2 had not been made, his aides said the prime minister finalised his conference speech a week before the event began, including the rail announcement.

The loud protests of civic leaders, including the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, had no effect. “It’s in the price,” said one Tory official. “Andy will do what Andy will do.”

Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, fought a rearguard action to at least ensure that the high speed line made it into central London, rather than stopping six miles out of town at a new station at Old Oak Common.

Hunt and Sunak agreed to reprieve the Euston leg and put the project under new management, turning the site into a massive inner-city development to raise cash from the private sector.

Rishi Sunak, in a reposte to his critics, said: ‘The facts have changed. And the right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction.’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

One former minister said Tory MPs liked the idea of HS2 cash being dispersed to transport projects across the country, but they remained uneasy: “There’s concern from an international perspective, we look like we’re not able to deliver a major national infrastructure project.”

Sunak, however, insisted on Wednesday there was “nothing ambitious” about “pouring more and more money into the wrong projects”, and “nothing long-term” about “ignoring your real infrastructure needs” to channel investment into “one grand project”.

In a riposte to his critics, he said: “The facts have changed. And the right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction.”

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