Labour says Sunak should take blame for soaring HS2 costs as they happened on his ‘direct watch’ – UK politics live | Politics

Labour claims Sunak should take blame for HS2 costs almost trebling because as chancellor he had duty to monitor them

Until now Labour has been relatively cautious about getting involved in the HS2 story, because although notionally it is fully committed to HS2, if Rishi Sunak were to cancel the Birmingham to Manchester and the Old Oak Common to Euston legs of the project, completing HS2 would suddenly become an enormous unfunded spending commitment.

But this afternoon the party is making a strong intervention. Without making a firm policy commitment, it is seeking to show that Rishi Sunak should take the blame for HS2 costs overrunning. Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, is making this argument in an open letter to Sunak pointing out that he has been responsible for monitoring HS2 costs for more than four years, either as chief secretary to the Treasury (from July 2019), as chancellor (from February 2020) and as PM (from last year).

Referring to a story in the Times yesterday saying Sunak is alarmed at the rising cost and quoting an official accusing HS2 bosses of acting “like kids with the golden credit card”, Haigh said:

In your present and previous roles – both as chancellor and chief secretary to the Treasury – you have had plenty of opportunities, as well as a responsibility to British taxpayers, to monitor spending and progress.

It is under your direct watch that the cost of HS2 has reportedly almost trebled.

The National Audit Office has found that HS2 “cost increases may not have been necessary” if risks had been “recognised and managed earlier” by the government.

During your time as chancellor, the NAO published a report titled Progress in implementing National Audit Office recommendations: High Speed Two. This report confirmed that: “A detailed estimate of the full cost of the programme has not yet been completed.”

And, as chancellor, you agreed revised funding for phase one of “£44.6bn, including £5.6bn of contingency to be held by HS2 Ltd and £4.3bn of other contingency to be held by government”.

Haigh went on:

HS2 is the government’s largest infrastructure programme by value. I’m therefore concerned that, as chief secretary to the Treasury, chancellor, and now prime minister, you suggest that you had no idea what was happening with the project.

Please can you confirm that HM Treasury receives regular reports from the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd? If so, did you ever read any of these reports?

Referring to the briefing given to the Times, Haigh also said it was unfair “for politicians to blame officials who can’t defend themselves in public”.

Haigh ended her letter by saying that the government was in chaos and and it should urgently update parliament on HS2 costs, with 2023 prices not 2019 prices.

Louise Haigh. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Key events

Laws demanding UK developers improve local nature delayed

The government will delay new environmental laws that require housebuilders to improve local nature and wildlife habitats when they build a development in existing green space, Helena Horton reports.

Pulling plug on HS2 ‘would be final nail in coffin for levelling up’, Sunak warned

My colleagues Josh Halliday and Jessica Murray have spoken to more than a dozen northern political and business leaders about reports that Rishi Sunak wants to abandon the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2. They say this would be disastrous, and “the final nail in the coffin” for levelling up.

A reader asks:

Would it be possible to research the ‘Charles line’ which is mentioned in the HS2 article (‘Northern research group may accept delay of HS2 to Manchester if the Charles line is built’). I cannot find any information about this ‘Charles line’ anywhere and it rather smacks of throwing the north a bone to chew on and stay quiet.

The “Charles line” is what some Tories want to call Northern Powerhouse Rail, the proposed new line or upgrade from Liverpool to Leeds and beyond. (Different versions have been proposed at different times.) They believe that that way it would be a northern equivalent to the recently-opened Elizabeth Line linking Reading and Heathrow with east London.

Tory London mayoral candidate says she did not mean to cause offence by liking tweets praising Enoch Powell

Aletha Adu

Aletha Adu

Susan Hall, the Conservative candidate for London mayor, has said she did not intend to cause any offence when she liked tweets praising Enoch Powell.

Speaking on her LBC phone-in this morning, she said:

If you’re a serial tweeter, you tend to go through liking all sorts of things. If anybody is offended, then obviously I would apologise.

Any offence “wasn’t intended”, she insisted.

She also she “can’t remember” retweeting a post by Katie Hopkins that called Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor, “the nipple height mayor of Londonistan”.

During the phone-in she also said she would scrap Khan’s extension of Ulez, the ultra-low emissions zone, on her first day if she won the mayoral race next year.

When told by a caller that the poorest in London cannot even afford to drive, so they are most at risk of inhaling lethal air, Hall said she would help to reduce any “pockets” of air pollutions by giving councils the ability to bid from a £50m fund.

Tory insiders believe their party could have easily won the mayoral race if a moderate candidate had been selected instead of Hall.

The latest poll by JL Partners puts Hall on 32% with Khan on 35%, which has infuriated a number of insiders who believe her string of hard-right views may have scuppered their chances.

One indication of the lack of support she has from the Tory leadership is that she has not been given an official speaking slot during Conservative party conference.

Asked about the conference snub, Hall told LBC:

It really doesn’t bother me at all. Talking at conference to Conservatives isn’t going to get me more votes in London.

Susan Hall.
Susan Hall. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

A reader asks:

Yesterday you wrote about comments made about Suella Braverman’s speech “before we’d seen the text”. I’ve looked at since 16:00 yesterday, and haven’t found the text of her speech. Is it available online?

The Home Office has not put it on its website yet. They tell me it will go up eventually; it is not unusual for them to take their time. But the full text is available on the ConservativeHome website.

UK would be ‘laughing stock’ if HS2 does not go to Euston, says Sadiq Khan

And here are some more quotes from the Labour metro mayors who met in Leeds this morning to discuss HS2.

Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, said the UK would be a “laughing stock” if Rishi Sunak were to just build HS2 from Old Oak Common to Birmingham, as he is reportedly considering. Under this option, the HS2 journey from Birmingham to central London (ie Euston) would be slower than it is now, he said.

We will be a laughing stock if basically we are left with a shuttle service from Birmingham Curzon Street to six miles west of central London …

Only this government could potentially build a high-speed line that’s slower than a Victorian line.

Sadiq Khan at the meeting in Leeds.
Sadiq Khan at the meeting in Leeds. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Andy Burnham, the greater Manchester mayor, said regional leaders had been left “in the dark” by government as to what was happening. He said:

We’re in the dark. Clearly there are conversations going on but people in Whitehall don’t think that in the north, where these decisions will impact, they don’t think that we deserve to be told or even included in those conversations.

It is basically par for the course though isn’t it, it is the way this country is run. But they are getting a clear message back from us today and we’re glad the mayor of London is here to support us. Stop treating the people of the north of England as second-class citizens when it comes to transport.

Andy Burnham at Arcadis in Leeds today.
Andy Burnham at Arcadis in Leeds today. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Tracy Brabin, the West Yorkshire mayor, posted this on X/Twitter.

We stand together as mayors to urge the government to stop inflicting economic damage on our cities and the country. Gathering together in Leeds today, we say build HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail in full.

Tracy Brabin at Arcadis in Leeds.
Tracy Brabin at Arcadis in Leeds. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

And Steve Rotheram, the Liverpool city region mayor, posted this on X/Twitter.

@MetroMayorSteve and mayors from across the country are calling on government to deliver HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail in full.

In the Liverpool City Region, NPR could generate:

£15bn of economic growth

24,000 jobs

1,000 homes

3.7 million visitors every year

Steve Rotheram Mayor at Arcadis in Leeds.
Steve Rotheram Mayor at Arcadis in Leeds. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Tory London mayoral candidate Susan Hall says HS2 should go all way to Euston

Aletha Adu

Aletha Adu

The Conservative London mayoral candidate, Susan Hall, has said she would “obviously prefer” HS2 to go ahead and run to London Euston instead of stopping in the city’s suburbs, but she “isn’t comfortable” with rising costs.

When asked if she wanted HS2 to stop at Old Oak Common stop, about six miles from Euston, as it would if Rishi Sunak abandons the Euston spur as he reportedly wants to on cost grounds, she replied:

No, it isn’t. And I want the (whole HS2) thing to go ahead. Of course I do.

But equally, the government have got to watch to see how much it’s costing and if they’re trying to negotiate now with everybody saying: ‘It doesn’t matter how much it costs, it’s got to go ahead’, it would put them in a difficult position.

Sunak will put cohesion of UK at risk if he cancels phase 2 of HS2, Burnham says

Andy Burnham has said that Rishi Sunak will put the cohesion of the UK at risk if he cancels the second phase of HS2. Speaking from Leeds, where he has been meeting other Labour metro mayors, Burnham said:

If they build this line, not even from central London but outer London through the home counties to the West Midlands basically it will become a permanent symbol of the places that Whitehall cares about. It would be a huge message to the north of England that we just don’t feature in their thinking.

And honestly, I think it will build a real groundswell of opinion for people here to say: ‘No we’re just not having this anymore, we’re not having a country that is run like this.’

We deserve equal treatment here in the north with other parts of the country and seriously I think Whitehall are really risking the cohesion of the country if they don’t take a decision that is seen to be fair for everybody.

Five Labour metro mayor opposed to the cancellation of phase 2 of HS2. From ledft to right, Andy Burnham, Tracy Brabin, Sadiq Khan, Steve Rotheram and Oliver Coppard
Five Labour metro mayor opposed to the cancellation of phase 2 of HS2. From ledt to right, Andy Burnham, Tracy Brabin, Sadiq Khan, Steve Rotheram and Oliver Coppard. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Culture secretary Lucy Frazer refuses to say UK remains committed to staying part of UN refugee convention

In her interviews this morning Lucy Frazer, the culture secretary, defended what Suella Braverman said about multiculturalism in her immigration speech yesterday. Frazer said her colleague was “talking about was the importance of integrating people who come here into our communities, and I think that’s a really valid point”.

(In her speech, Braverman referred to the “misguided dogma of multiculturalism” and quoted approvingly from a speech given by Angela Merkel 13 years ago saying in Germany its approach to multiculturalism had failed.)

But Frazer repeatedly refused to say the government remains committed to staying in the UN refugee convention, which Braverman argued in her speech was no longer fit for purpose because it was drafted more than 70 years ago when global migration problems were very different.

Instead Frazer told Sky News:

I think that those conventions are really important, but I do think that it is … what (Braverman) was talking about is whether those sorts of conventions should be reformed.

And I do think that it is up to all countries to look at whether conventions that were signed a number of years ago are still, as they are interpreted today, whether they’re still doing the job that they were enacted to do.

Frazer is not in charge of government immigration policy and she probably knows as little about what the Conservative party will say about the UN refugee convention in its next manifesto as the rest of us. But she could have said that the UK has been party to the convention for decades, and that Braverman was just talking about reforming the convention, not leaving it. Instead, she sounded a bit more equivocal – perhaps because she is not sure where the debate on this in Tory circles will end up.

Here is the clip.

Lucy Frazer, the culture secretary, was at the wicket on behalf of No 10 on the morning programmes. Asked about HS2, she said whether or not to cancel the leg from Birmingham to Manchester was a decision for the chancellor and the PM, not for her. She said they were listening to people’s concerns. She told Sky News:

I’m sure the prime minister and the chancellor listen to a wide variety of voices.

But as you will know, it’s the responsibility of the government to keep all projects under consideration. And that’s what the chancellor is doing. He is, as he does on all matters which are spending billions of pounds of taxpayers’ funding, is looking at a whole range of projects to make sure that they are value for money.

Tory peer Gavin Barwell accuses Braverman of using ‘language of far right’ in her migration speech

We covered the criticism of Suella Braverman’s immigration speech in Washington at length yesterday, in the live blog and in our story.

Overnight more Conservatives have been speaking out. In her London Playbook briefing this morning Eleni Courea quotes several Tories from the one nation wing of the party expressing alarm about what she said. But they have spoken about anonymously, which says a lot about the relative timidity and impotence of the Tory left at the moment.

But one person who has been willing to criticise Braverman on the record is Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s former chief of staff. He now sits in the House of Lords, which means he does not have to worry activists in his local Conservative association. In a post on Twitter, he said that it was unacceptable for Braverman to say that immigration posed an “existential challenge” to the west.

It’s ironic for her to say this given her background and the make up of the Government she is (regrettably) a member of, but it’s acceptable

What is unacceptable is the reference to migration being an “existential challenge”, which is undeniably the language of the far right

It’s ironic for her to say this given her background and the make up of the Government she is (regrettably) a member of, but it’s acceptable

What is unacceptable is the reference to migration being an “existential challenge”, which is undeniably the language of the far right

— Gavin Barwell (@GavinBarwell) September 26, 2023

In a separate tweet, Barwell also said that the suggestion that immigrants don’t become full members of society (something Braverman suggested, although in this case he was responding to a tweet by a rightwing journalist) was “deeply offensive”.

What is the basis for the claim that many arrivals live a separate existence in a parallel society? I live in one of the most diverse parts of the country. You’re talking about my friends and neighbours. It is untrue and deeply offensive to suggest they’re not part of our society

What is the basis for the claim that many arrivals live a separate existence in a parallel society? I live in one of the most diverse parts of the country. You’re talking about my friends and neighbours. It is untrue and deeply offensive to suggest they’re not part of our society

— Gavin Barwell (@GavinBarwell) September 26, 2023

Nicola Sturgeon joins those criticising decision to approve Rosebank oil and gas development in North Sea

Britain has given the go-ahead to develop the UK’s biggest untapped oilfield off the Shetland Islands, sparking outrage from environmental campaigners. Mark Sweney and Matthew Taylor have the story here.

Julia Kollewe has reaction to this on the business live blog.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s former first minister, has joined those criticising the decision to let the development go ahead. She has posted this on X (formerly Twitter).

Agree with @CarolineLucas. Also, by consuming scarce resources that could be going to renewables, it risks slowing the green transition and the jobs that come from it. That’s not in interests of those who work in oil & gas – they need that transition to happen at pace #rosebank

Agree with @CarolineLucas. Also, by consuming scarce resources that could be going to renewables, it risks slowing the green transition and the jobs that come from it. That’s not in interests of those who work in oil & gas – they need that transition to happen at pace #rosebank

— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) September 27, 2023

Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, has called the decision “the greatest act of environmental vandalism” in her lifetime in the tweet Sturgeon is endorsing.

Cancelling phase 2 of HS2 would leave north of England with transport network ‘unfit for purpose’, say Labour mayors

Good morning. Governments are judged on the decisions they take. But they are also judged on how they take decisions (arguably nothing harmed Gordon Brown’s premiership more than his dithering over calling an election in 2007), and Rishi Sunak’s handling of the forthcoming HS2 announcement is becoming chaotic.

Aubrey Allegretti has written a good analysis of the problem. Here is an excerpt.

For nearly a fortnight, the fate of HS2 has hung in the balance. Far from seizing the agenda after plans to pare back the high-speed rail project emerged, Sunak has been accused by Conservative MPs of vacillating.

The void has spurred on critics and supporters of HS2 to fight even harder – compounding the difficulty of the situation for Sunak. And with talk of putting off a final decision until the autumn statement in November, government insiders know the row could intensify further.

The immovable event in front of them is the Conservative party conference, beginning on Sunday. With such a significant split running through the party, Sunak’s aides fear Tory MPs will be left squabbling over HS2 at fringe events.

HS2 has the power to become a dominating theme and to distract from the key aims of setting out his stall to voters before a general election and winning the confidence of Tory members who shunned him in last year’s leadership contest.

And here is the full article.

One compromise might be a long delay to the Birmingham to Manchester route, rather than wholesale cancellation. As Ben Quinn reports, the chair of the Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs (who want the full HS2) has signalled this might be acceptable.

Today Rishi Sunak is facing fresh lobbying on this from five Labour metro mayors. They are: Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester), Tracy Brabin (West Yorkshire), Oliver Coppard (South Yorkshire), Steve Rotheram (Liverpool city region) and Sadiq Khan (London).

The mayors are holding a meeting this morning and, ahead of it, they issued a joint statement saying they had been “inundated” with concerns from constituents about the potential “economic damage that will result from any decision not to proceed with HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) in full”. They said:

Investment in transport infrastructure is a huge driver of economic growth – creating jobs, increasing productivity and opening up new business opportunities. HS2 and NPR will deliver this right across our regions.

This government has said repeatedly that it is committed to levelling up in the Midlands and north. Failure to deliver HS2 and NPR will leave swathes of the north with Victorian transport infrastructure that is unfit for purpose and cause huge economic damage in London and the south, where construction of the line has already begun.

I will post more on this as the day goes on, as well as covering the backlash to the immigration speech given by Suella Braverman, the home secretary, yesterday.

Here is the agenda for the day.

9.30am: Labour metro mayors meet in Leeds to discuss the threat to HS2.

11.15am: Helen Whately, the social care minister, gives a speech.

Noon: Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s first minister, is questioned by the committee of convenors (Holyrood’s version of the Commons liaison committee).

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