Rishi Sunak has insisted he is committed to levelling up despite declining to back building HS2 to the North in the face of warnings by senior Tories not to axe the rail project.
The Prime Minister is considering scrapping or delaying the leg of HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester in response to soaring costs.
Grant Shapps, recently promoted to Defence Secretary from his transport role, said it would be “crazy” not to reconsider the project in considering the UK’s economic situation.
But Tory former chancellor George Osborne and ex-Conservative deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine were among senior divs warning that axing the Manchester route would be a “gross act of vandalism” which would mean “abandoning” the North and Midlands.
Visiting a community centre in Hertfordshire, which is receiving money from a community ownership fund, the Prime Minister faced questions over how he could be committed to levelling up while considering rowing back on the rail project.
“I’m not going to comment on that type of speculation. But what I would say is we’re absolutely committed to levelling up and spreading opportunity around the country, not just in the North but in the Midlands, in all other regions of our fantastic country,” he said.
“And transport infrastructure is a key part of that, not just big rail projects, but also local projects, improving local bus services, fixing pot holes, all of these things make a difference in people’s day-to-day lives.”
Pressed yes or no whether it will go ahead, Mr Sunak insisted: “This kind of speculation that people are making is not right. We’ve got spades in the ground, we’re getting on and delivering.”
But he stressed they are connecting towns in the North, east to west, as a “really important part” of creating jobs and growth in the region, while speaking from the Wormley Community Centre in Broxbourne.
Mr Osborne and Lord Heseltine, writing in The Times, warned that governments “are remembered for what they build and create”.
“Make this mistake and yours may only be known for what it cancelled and curtailed,” they said.
If the northern section is cancelled, they added, “the remaining stump, little more than a shuttle service from Birmingham to a London suburb, would become an international symbol of our decline”.
Commons Health Committee chairman Steve Brine said it would look “odd” to scrap the scheme in the days before Tory MPs and activists arrive in Manchester for their annual conference on Sunday.
The Conservative also said he hoped the line would run all the way into central London rather than stopping short at Old Oak Common in the capital’s western suburbs.
“It would seem very odd for us to be in Manchester next week and can a project to Manchester,” Mr Brine told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour.
“It would seem very odd not to bring this new rail line into central London and just stop it at Old Oak Common.
“So I really hope a way can be found to do this.”
The Sunday Telegraph reported the potential cost of the high-speed rail scheme – which Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has said is “out of control” – had increased by £8 billion just for the initial London-Birmingham stretch, up from £45 billion.
The Prime Minister and Chancellor are reported to be meeting to discuss the situation in the coming days.
Former transport secretary Mr Shapps used broadcast interviews on Sunday to say the Government could not write an “open-ended cheque” if costs were “inexorably going higher and higher”.
In a hint that a delay rather than an outright cancellation could be an option, Mr Shapps said: “I think the sequencing of what happens next is a perfectly legitimate question.”
The Independent reported the northern leg of the scheme could be pushed back by up to seven years.