Northern voters cast doubt over Sunak’s transport pledge after HS2 failure

When Rishi Sunak announced on Wednesday that he was scrapping the multibillion-pound HS2 railway line to Manchester, while standing in a former train station in the same city, the immediate cry from northern leaders and businesses was one of betrayal.

The UK prime minister and his aides, however, use focus groups to test their policies and have calculated that a series of local transport schemes across the country will prove more popular than the project, which was not due to be delivered for many years and already wildly over budget. 

Nevertheless, polling and political analysts highlight that although the HS2 line, which has been scrapped north of Birmingham, was not particularly popular, northern voters may not trust what they are hearing from the government.

“There’s the symbolism of it,” said Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, of why the announcement “may land badly”. 

“This is still the parliament that resulted from votes loaned to the Tories by voters in the north and Midlands, who have always assumed, when it comes to the crunch, they will be thrown under the bus.

“This looks like a Tory PM saying ‘crunch time has come and I’m throwing you under the bus’ — so it confirms their worst suspicions.”

A loss of support for the government’s transport plans would be a concern for Sunak as he seeks to rally voters ahead of the general election expected next year.

Polling has long showed that HS2, originally conceived under the last Labour government, is not particularly popular. Only three or four out of 10 people tend to express support for the project, with the numbers not much higher in the north. 

However, said Ford, it depends how the question is framed. Polling produced for West Midlands mayor Andy Street on the eve of the Conservative party conference showed that more than three-quarters of voters thought the disruption and money spent on the first phase of HS2 would have been wasted were it to be cut off at Birmingham. 

Andy Street, West Midlands mayor, speaks to the media about HS2 © Jacob King/PA

The decision has nonetheless proved popular among some northern Conservative politicians, who believe people — in particular outside of the north-west — are more interested in improvements directly in their neighbourhood.

Burnley’s Conservative MP Antony Higginbotham said “no one talks to me about HS2 on the doorsteps of Burnley”. Meanwhile, Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen posted on X, formerly Twitter, that the announcement meant “more money to deliver real transport projects that will actually deliver real change for people across Teesside and the north”. 

“If HS2 went ahead we would get nothing,” he added. 

Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, which represents passengers across the country, said it was difficult to know how transport users will respond to the newly proposed projects. 

“I think people will need to see more detail about what, when and how — and what it’s going to mean for them,” he said.

But, he added, HS2 had been designed to solve the problems most often raised by rail users, “basic things like frequency, reliability and capacity”. 

Electrification projects, which comprise many of the schemes in Sunak’s transport plan, are more disruptive than building a new railway line, he argued, because they result in years of rail replacement bus services. 

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, said ministers had nonetheless calculated that HS2 was “quite hard to understand” and “far into the future”.

People are experiencing disruption from the HS2 project now, while the benefits seem “intangible”, he said. “Whereas if you’re constantly stuck in traffic in the middle of Shipley and someone suggests ‘we will build a bypass’, you understand it.”

That did not mean the trade-off was a “good idea”, he said, adding that voters may greet the latest promises with scepticism anyway. Since 2010, Conservative ministers have promised a series of high-profile transport projects that have not been delivered, particularly in the north of England.

“People are deeply sceptical about all of that and that does feed the narrative that ‘nothing works, they’ve promised the earth but my day-to-day life is expensive and rubbish’,” added Westwood.

The polling for Street, carried out by Portland Communications, showed most people would be less likely to trust future transport promises if HS2 was cut off at Birmingham. 

That narrative may be boosted by confusion over the plan’s contents in the 24 hours after Sunak made his speech. 

While the original list of projects included the reopening of the Leamside railway line in the north-east, long a priority for local leaders, by the following afternoon it had been deleted. Transport minister Richard Holden said the government was “committed to looking into” the idea.

A government official said the rail line could potentially be funded out of money that was being devolved to local leaders.

Ford said the individual transport projects in isolation may well prove popular, “but nobody is going to believe it”. 

“That’s also very dangerous — because it plays into this broader narrative that this is a Tory government that promises anything and everything and doesn’t actually deliver anything, ever.” 

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