Rishi Sunak has insisted he is not going to be forced into a “premature decision” over the fate of the HS2 high-speed rail line as speculation about the multibillion pound project continued to overshadow the Conservative conference.
“I am not going to be forced into a premature decision because it is good for someone’s TV programme,” the prime minister told BBC Breakfast.
“What I want to do is make the right decision for the country. This is an enormous amount of people’s money, taxpayers’ money, everybody watching, billions and billions of pounds.
“We shouldn’t be rushed into things like that. What people would expect from me is to take the time to go over it properly and make sure we make the right long-term decisions for the country.”
Sunak has become embroiled in a row with regional politicians, the transport industry and members of his party as he prepares to announce the cancellation of the line between Birmingham and Manchester.
He is due to call an emergency cabinet meeting on Tuesday at the conference, where ministers are expected to give their approval to the biggest infrastructure climbdown in a generation.
But after his continued stalling in Tuesday morning’s interviews, expectation is likely to grow that he is saving any key announcement for his address to the party faithful on Wednesday.
As supporters of the project continued to fight a rearguard action to defend HS2, the former Conservative chancellor George Osborne said it would be a “great tragedy” if it was cancelled, warning that investment in other northern rail infrastructure was “not a substitute” for the high-speed project.
“I hope it’s not too late and the cabinet sticks with the policy of previous Conservative and Labour administrations and goes ahead with this project,” said Osborne, who was part of David Cameron’s government when HS2 was given the green light.
He told ITV News: “It is the biggest levelling-up project that the country has got and, in the end, if you want to make long-term decisions – and I fully support Rishi Sunak in wanting to make those long term decisions – that includes huge investment in infrastructure like HS2.”
Earlier, Sunak appeared to lay the ground for cancelling a large part of the project on the basis of cost, telling Times Radio: “The sums involved are enormous and it’s right that the prime minister takes proper care over it.”
In a round of interviews, Sunak repeatedly refused to confirm whether the HS2 line from Birmingham to Manchester would be scrapped despite widespread speculation that he would cancel it because of soaring costs.
He told BBC News: “All I would say is the way I approach this job, I take a look at the facts, I take my time to get the decision right on behalf of the country – whatever it might be – and that’s what I’ll do with this, as I do with everything else.”
Among others fighting to defend the project and seek clarity on its future, the chief executive of a developer involved in HS2 said Sunak and an adviser had “dodged the question” when he briefly met him at the event in Manchester.
Mark Reynolds, the head of Mace, one of the companies involved in building stations at Birmingham and London Euston, warned that it would be a big mistake to stop the line short of London at Old Oak Common, which had been widely reported as an option the government was considering.
“If anyone thinks that ending the line at Old Oak Common is going to be strategic infrastructure, that is a waste of money. You might as well scrap the whole lot,” Reynolds told the BBC’s Today programme.
Reynolds said he was in Manchester to make the case for HS2, over which there was “a lot of rhetoric”. He said he had spoken to the prime minister, who “dodged the question and moved on very quickly”.
There was lacerating criticism of Sunak by Henri Murison of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP), an organisation representing business and civic leaders across the north of England, who said he “didn’t know what the prime minister is playing at”.
Murison said there was increasing concern about the future of the “northern powerhouse” transport infrastructure plans, which were also linked to the HS2 legislation.
“Will he be cancelling that too, all for his pothole funds?” he told Sky News, referring to previous comments by Sunak that members of the public were more eager to see potholes filled.
“It feels like this is a PM who says one thing and does the other,” he added. “It also feels like he is trying to trash Boris Johnson’s legacy, HS2, and trash the net zero agenda.”