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Government suggests HS2 could be scrapped as it launches independent review

The high-speed project has been unpopular in some Tory marginals
The high-speed project has been unpopular in some Tory marginals Credit: REUTERS/SIMON DAWSON

HS2 could be scrapped, the Government suggested on Wednesday, as it launched an independent review into the controversial rail project.

The launch of the review, which will consider whether the rail line should be scaled back or scrapped completely, comes just days after senior Downing Street aides discussed mothballing it before a potential snap election. 

Conservative MPs welcomed the announcement and claimed that scrapping HS2 would hand Mr Johnson a major boost in key marginal seats should he choose to go to the country. 

They included David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, who said that “derailing this runaway disaster” would be “a vote winner in any potential general election campaign.” 

Writing in The Telegraph, Mr Davis claims that HS2 is a “singularly unpopular policy in constituencies across the UK” and that shelving it would free up billions of pounds to spend on regional infrastructure projects. 

First proposed by the last Labour government in 2009, HS2 has long been opposed by dozens of Conservative MPs and continues to divide opinion among the public. 

When completed, the rail line will run through the constituencies of 26 sitting Tory MPs, including Mr Johnson’s seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. 

A former Cabinet minister said: “HS2 is a white elephant...a Labour vanity project. It runs through a lot of Tory seats. I imagine everything the Government does at the moment will be calculated according to an imminent general election. 

“There is a strong political case for scrapping it. It would certainly help to send out a couple of dozen Tory MPs who are able to say ‘we’ve delivered’.” 

Their comments come after Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief strategist, raised HS2 during a meeting with Government special advisers last week. 

According to Whitehall sources, Mr Cummings mentioned HS2 on Friday during a discussion on wasteful policies which could be scrapped by Whitehall departments before a potential snap election.

One insider told The Telegraph that whilst they had originally considered his remarks to be a “joke”, the launch of the review suggested that Number 10 was taking the prospect more seriously. 

Whilst Mr Johnson refused to commit to scrapping HS2 during the Tory leadership contest, he has previously stated his opposition to the scheme as Mayor of London and as a backbench MP. 

In January 2012, he told The Telegraph that there was “no point spending this much on something which doesn’t work properly”. 

In October 2018, shortly after he resigned as foreign secretary, he told the Conservative Party conference that projects in the North of England “ought to take precedence over HS2”. 

Mr Johnson has also recently noted that the final cost of the project could be “north of £100bn” and last week ditched the official £56bn price tag insisted by Theresa May’s administration. 

Critics of HS2 have also been encouraged by the appointment of Lord Berkely, one of the project’s fiercest critics, as deputy chairman of the review. 

A Labour peer and railway expert, Lord Berkley has repeatedly attacked HS2 Ltd, as well as challenging the Department for Transport’s cost figures for the rail line.

He will work alongside chairman Douglas Oakervee, who previously worked as chair of HS2 Ltd and was a close ally of Mr Johnson during his time in City Hall. 

They will be assisted by an advisory panel of experts, including leading rail figures, who will advise ministers on “how and whether” HS2 should proceed. 

An artist's impression of an HS2 train on the Birmingham and Fazeley viaduct Credit: PA

The review will consider the direct cost of “reprioritising, cancelling or descoping the project”, as well as whether the £56 billion estimated cost of the scheme is “realistic”.

A final report will be sent to Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary - with oversight from Mr Johnson and the chancellor Sajid Javid - by the autumn. 

Mr Shapps said: “The prime minister has been clear that transport infrastructure has the potential to drive economic growth, redistribute opportunity and support towns and cities across the UK, but that investments must be subject to continuous assessment of their costs and benefits.

“That’s why we are undertaking this independent and rigorous review of HS2. Douglas Oakervee and his expert panel will consider all the evidence available and provide the department with clear advice on the future of the project.”

It comes amid mounting concern that HS2 cannot be built to its current specification within the £56bn budget, with HS2 Ltd chairman Allan Cook believed to have recently written to the Department for Transport warning that the final bill could be as high as £85bn.