From the brains behind Brexit: an HS2 for the north that doesn’t actually go there

<span>Photograph: Hollie Adams/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Hollie Adams/Reuters

A recap of the weekend’s news, for those who’ve been doing something more enjoyable than following politics, like smacking themselves repeatedly round the chops with a spanner. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has decided that the route to electoral success lies in “tough choices”, and is even now searching for a campaign anthem along the lines of “things can only get worse”. Having already abandoned the government’s own environmental promises, he’s talking about further cuts to the HS2 rail project, whose eastern arm to Nottingham and Leeds he already amputated as chancellor.

HS2 will still run between London and Birmingham, for the very good reason they’ve already built that bit. But both the section north to Crewe (which would allow high-speed trains to Manchester), and the one that takes passengers the last five miles into central London, could be delayed into later Treasury budget rounds, or even face the axe. Sunak may announce the new, revised plan at the Tory party conference in Manchester next week. Very brave, prime minister.

Related: No 10 says there is precedent for delaying parts of HS2 due to ‘affordability’ – UK politics live

Spending tens of billions of pounds on a high-speed rail link between London and the north, without actually managing to reach either, would surely be a bit on the nose, even for this government. Then again, these are the same people who gave us a Brexit that reduced national sovereignty, and a schedule of cuts that increased the national debt.

There are a few other absurdities about all this, the first of which concerns the spiralling costs that have triggered the rethink. It’s true that the £55bn price tag attached to HS2 in 2015 has somehow ballooned to £71bn, even though the project has been reduced in scope and lost an entire leg. Much of this can surely be put down to the uncertainty that comes through endless tinkering, or the decision to stick much of the Chiltern section in tunnels to appease Tory nimbys. Even so, the government has somehow managed to present spiralling costs as a sort of natural phenomenon, unrelated to anything it has done.

Then there’s the fact that, after all these years of debate, the purpose of the project is still so little understood. Tens of billions of pounds is indeed a bit much to knock a few minutes off journeys between London and Birmingham, but that was never really the point. The actual point of HS2 isn’t speed, but (stop me if you’ve heard this before) capacity. Adding a line enables you to run more trains, but also by giving fast trains their own line, you can run more stopping services on the existing ones, too.

This is why demands to replace HS2 with investment in local rail services are so wrong-headed: even if government budgeting worked like that, which it doesn’t, the high-speed route isn’t a competitor to those investments, but a necessary precursor to them. To run more trains, whether passengers or freight, we need to do something like this.

Which brings us to our final absurdity: the sheer incompetence of Tory management of Britain’s finances. The Treasury has consistently chosen to slash investment to balance budgets, with the result that schools and hospitals are at risk of collapse. Figures published by the New Statesman this week showed that just 0.7% of Britain’s railways are classed as high speed, lower than Poland (1.2%) and a lot less than France (10%) or Spain (22.2%). Yet once again, the department is putting off investment of the sort that could boost growth just because it involves spending money upfront.

Related: Rishi Sunak pushes to axe northern HS2 rail line ahead of Tory conference

It’s hard to believe, even now, that the government really is going to cut HS2 at both ends. Running high-speed trains that don’t reach central London would be a joke, and the backlash from northern MPs who were promised levelling up is growing all the time. History suggests that the result of all this will be that the government will commit to the Euston arm and not the Manchester one this weekend, and hopes the London media shuts up. History also suggests that this might actually work.

Nonetheless, I’ve never been quite able to shake the suspicion that, faced with a choice of spending a billion quid on something that works, or £900m on something that doesn’t, this Tory Treasury would opt for the latter every time. This weekend has come unnervingly close to proving it.

  • Jonn Elledge is former assistant editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Compendium of (Not Quite) Everything: All the Facts You Didn’t Know You Wanted to Know