The prime minister was grilled on the issue after this publication reported that he and chancellor Jeremy Hunt have been talking about a proposal to make major cutbacks, with secret discussions codenamed “Project Redwood”.
A cost estimate seen by The Independent shows that the government has already spent £2.3bn on the second stage of the high-speed railway from Birmingham to Manchester, but shelving the northern phase would save up to £34bn.
Mr Sunak used a press conference on Wednesday to announce he was weakening net zero environmental commitments – saying it was the start of a “series of long-term decisions” to change the country’s direction.
Asked after his speech at No 10 whether HS2 would form part of those changes and whether he could commit to the line linking Euston and central Manchester, he said: “I’m not going to speculate on lots of the other things that people will be talking about.”
Andrew Adonis, the Labour architect of HS2, told The Independent: “Today is a big step backwards in terms of meeting our climate commitments. It clearly isn’t a key priority for Rishi Sunak.”
Condemning the “utter stupidity” of the idea of cutting the northern leg, Lord Adonis said: “High-speed rail would hugely increase rail capacity, cut carbon emissions and reduce domestic aviation between Scotland and London.”
The Project Redwood proposals to axe the second phase of HS2 could now be dropped following furious reaction from northern mayors, business leaders and Tory MPs.
A source close to the discussions said the pair had got “cold feet” after the angry reaction, along with warnings that it would cost the party votes at the general election.
The planned railway is intended to link London, the Midlands and the north of England but has been plagued by delays and ballooning costs. Ministers have already moved to pause parts of the project and even axed sections in the north.
The eastern leg to Leeds was binned in 2021 and it was confirmed in March that construction between Birmingham and Crewe would be delayed by two years and that services may not enter central London until the 2040s.
Transport secretary Mark Harper announced that work at Euston would be paused for two years as costs had ballooned to £4.8bn compared with an initial budget of £2.6bn.
The pause means Old Oak Common will be the railway’s only London station when services to and from Birmingham Curzon Street begin between 2029 and 2033. Passengers travelling will need to take Elizabeth line services to continue their journey into the heart of the capital.
Labour has accused the Tories of a “great rail betrayal” following speculation that the Manchester leg could be axed.
Sir Keir Starmer has said Labour will build HS2 if Mr Sunak does abandon the north west route, but it is unclear if Labour would restore the eastern led to Leeds.
Labour sources have made clear they do not want to go further than the government by promising to complete the project in full because they would then need to find additional funding.
“We’ve always supported it and I think the government needs to end the chaos now, make a statement and make clear that it will hold good on the promises it has made,” he told broadcasters during a visit to French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris.