Rishi Sunak announces scaling back of HS2 in Tory conference speech

Rishi Sunak has formally announced he has cancelled the planned HS2 rail link from Birmingham to Manchester, saying the government would invest £36bn in other transport projects across the whole country.

Making his speech to the Conservative conference in Manchester, Sunak said HS2 had overrun in costs and the plans as they stood no longer made economic sense, adding: “The facts have changed, and the right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction.”

It was a notable policy announcement in a speech that otherwise stuck to largely familiar Conservative themes such as immigration, crime, the union and the benefits system.

In one other change that was also trailed in advance – and one that could prove unpopular with some free-market Conservatives – Sunak announced a plan for a New Zealand-style anti-smoking law to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco by a year each year.

“That means a 14-year-old today will never legally be sold a cigarette and that they and their generation can grow up smoke-free,” he said. This would, he added, only take place after a free vote in the Commons, without any party-based whipping.

As part of a wider effort to present himself as a bringer of change, Sunak said the HS2 cancellation would be a net positive for transport. All the money earmarked for the project would be spent on other transport projects such as road upgrades, east-west rail links and public transport.

“As a result of the decision we’re taking today, every region outside of London will receive the same or more government investment than they would have done under HS2 with quicker results,” he said.

This would include quicker links from Manchester to Bradford or Sheffield, £12bn on a Manchester to Liverpool link and a Midlands rail hub, as well as building new road capacity in a series of areas.

It remains to be seen, however, how the decision will land, with Andy Street, the Conservative mayor for the West Midlands, understood to be considering quitting his job in protest at the plan. Birmingham city council called the decision “yet another kick in the teeth” for the city, adding: “This short-sighted decision will hold back our city and region for decades.”

The HS2 link would still have a terminus at Euston in London, Sunak said. He announced that the station rebuild would be taken out of the hands of the HS2 organisation and handed to the new Euston Development Zone.

Elsewhere in the speech, Sunak repeatedly sought to present himself as the only option for change, despite being the fifth Conservative prime minister in 13 unbroken years of the party’s rule. Castigating what he said were 30 years of short-termism, he said voters were experiencing “exhaustion with politics”. “Our mission is to fundamentally change our country,” he said. “If the country is to change then it will only be us who can deliver it.”

Keir Starmer and Labour were, Sunak said, part of the problem, calling the opposition leader “the walking definition of the 30-year political status quo I am here to end”.

In a speech low on surprises, Sunak made a brief reference to “culture war” issues, with an attack on transgender activism, and said he would propose full-life jail terms for sexual and sadistic murders.

He also reiterated plans to make it harder for people to claim sickness or disability benefits. “We must end the national scandal where our benefits system declares that more than 2 million people of working age are incapable of actually doing any,” Sunak said.


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