Theresa May, Rishi Sunak
Tara Cobham, Adam Forrest, The Independent
Theresa May has joined the Conservative heavyweight pile-on against Rishi Sunak over HS2 as she becomes the third former Tory prime minister to call for the project not to be axed. Asked on Saturday if she would cut HS2, the former Tory leader responded with a categoric “no” over fears that abandoning the line into Euston will disrupt trains from her constituency, Maidenhead. She also warned that scaling back the project would leave the northwest without the railway capacity it desperately needs.
Her intervention came following The Independent’s revelation that he is secretly planning to cut the high-speed rail project – prompting a barrage of criticism from Tory grandees, businesses and regional mayors. Boris Johnson, who succeeded Ms May, warned on Friday that Mr Sunak and Mr Hunt would be “out of their minds” to abandon the flagship transport levelling-up project, while her predecessor David Cameron is said to have privately raised concerns with Downing Street. Tory transport secretary Mark Harper refused eight times to provide any clarity on the future of HS2’s northern leg in an excruciating BBC interview. Mr Harper repeatedly insisted that he was not willing to discuss “speculation” on Radio 4’s Today programme.
Sir Jeremy Wright, former Tory attorney general and culture secretary, added his voice to those calling for the line to be completed in full – pressing ministers to “finish the job”. The senior Tory told Today that HS2 would never have been given approval by parliament if it had only been intended between London and Birmingham – saying the “strategic benefits just aren’t there” and that the “price of it would simply be too high”. In an interview with The Independent’s Simon Walters at the Henley Literary Festival, of which The Independent is the exclusive news partner, Ms May also admitted errors from her time in office, but insisted that her Brexit deal had been the best choice for the UK.
She also reflected on being perceived as a “typical weak woman” after she welled up during her speech when she resigned as PM in 2019. Asked during the Q&A whether HS2 should be abandoned, Ms May said: “The answer is no. I will give you two comments on HS2. “First of all, we have to think about why HS2 was designed in the first place. It was because there was a lack of capacity on the West Coast Main Line. So if there is a lack of capacity on the West Coast Main Line, we need more railway capacity to serve the northwest.”
She said there was also an issue for her constituents if the line did not end up terminating in Euston. “If HS2 stops at Old Oak Common, it is going to make our railway journeys into London longer and disrupted potentially over the period that Old Oak Common’s building is being done to enable it to take that endpoint. “So I am arguing with government: don’t stop at Old Oak Common. You need to take it into Euston because my constituents will be disadvantaged if you don’t.”
Speaking at the festival on the release of her new book, The Abuse of Power, Ms May took a swipe at both Mr Sunak’s and Mr Johnson’s Brexit deals, arguing that her proposed deal was “better than the one we finally got”. She slammed Mr Johnson for accepting the Northern Ireland Protocol, creating more checks at its border with Ireland. She said that at the time she thought: “No UK PM could accept that as it would put a border down the Irish Sea between Ireland and Northern Ireland ... but Boris accepted it.” And while she conceded Mr Sunak’s deal was an improvement, she said checks still remain. “He’s found a way through,” she said. “I have every expectation that it will work. But it’s slightly different to a deal that I would’ve done.”
“Sunak is the better performer of the two by far, but the question is whether he can demonstrate that and use it to get across an effective message in the time available to him,” said polling guru Prof Sir John Curtice, of Strathclyde University.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, a Boris Johnson loyalist, has accused Sunak’s team of trying to “siphon off” votes to ensure Jeremy Hunt got through because they believed Sunak would beat him in a final vote.
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