One of Boris Johnson’s first acts as Prime Minister was to announce a review of HS2. With a panel of critics and supporters, the review has so far conducted its work quietly, with little sign of what its final assessment will be. But at a Conservative party fringe event last night, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak gave a hint to where the government’s own sympathies may lie. Tackling a question on HS2, he made a clear distinction between phase 1 from London to Birmingham – ‘the bit that’s causing all the controversy at the moment’ – and phase 2b – which would take the route from Birmingham into Manchester on one branch, and into Yorkshire on the other. He said:
‘Birmingham to London – the original thesis for investing in that line is capacity… Economics would tell you that there’s probably a higher return for the things that do that than just increasing capacity from Birmingham to London. Different things will have different returns; but I think that return on increasing connectivity among the northern cities will be very high.
It was also a speech that heavily focused on the importance of the Northern Powerhouse rail, which he suggested would not function properly without phase 2b being implemented:
‘And then there’s phase 2b, which, for those of you who are into this stuff, is the “Y” at the top that comes up into Yorkshire and comes up into Manchester. Now that is actually linked to Northern Powerhouse rail – you need those connections at the top to make some of the Northern Powerhouse rail projects work.’
Rishi Sunak is a rising star in Johnson’s cabinet, having only been an MP since 2015. He’s known as one of the consistent voices that No 10 can rely on to stay on message. His understated praise for phase 2 of HS2 – not yet even received parliamentary assent – could signal which way the government leans once the HS2 review is out later this year.