Sir Keir Starmer today accused Boris Johnson of breaking ‘important promises’ he made to the north of England after the PM failed to rule out watering down the Government’s high speed rail proposals.
The eastern leg of the HS2 high speed rail route between Birmingham and Leeds is expected to be axed when Transport Secretary Grant Shapps unveils the Government’s Integrated Rail Plan tomorrow.
There is also mounting anger that a pledge to boost east-west rail connections across the region, known as Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), will likely involve improvements to existing infrastructure rather than a new line between Manchester and Leeds.
Sir Keir asked Mr Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions if he will ‘stand by’ the rail promises he has made.
But the PM would not be drawn, telling the Labour leader he must ‘wait and see’ what is in the investment plan when it is published.
Mr Johnson insisted the plan will be ‘fantastic’ and people in the north of England will ‘benefit massively from what we are going to announce’.
Downing Street has said improving rail links in the north of England is an ‘absolute priority’ for the PM amid mounting anger among Tory MPs at the prospect of the Government backtracking on past pledges.
Jake Berry, the former Northern Powerhouse minister and now the chairman of the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs, said this morning that the PM had made a ‘personal commitment’ to deliver for the north of England.
Mr Berry said ‘commitments made by prime ministers matter’ as he appeared to fire a warning shot at the premier.
Sir Keir Starmer today accused Boris Johnson of breaking ‘important promises’ he made to the north of England after the PM failed to rule out watering down the Government’s high speed rail proposals
Jake Berry, the former Northern Powerhouse minister and now the chairman of the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs, said this morning that the PM had made a ‘personal commitment’ to deliver for the north of England
The Prime Minister is facing anger from Tory Red Wall MPs who fear a hammering at the ballot box if the Government weakens commitments made to the region.
Mr Johnson pledged his ‘commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail’ shortly after entering Downing Street in 2019.
The 2019 Tory manifesto stated that ‘we will build Northern Powerhouse Rail between Leeds and Manchester and then focus on Liverpool, Tees Valley, Hull, Sheffield and Newcastle’.
Mr Johnson repeated the pledge in his Conservative Party conference speech this year, telling Tory activists: ‘We will do Northern Powerhouse rail. We will link up the cities of the Midlands and the north.’
Sir Keir raised the issue at PMQs at lunchtime as he asked Mr Johnson if he intends to ‘stick by’ his promises.
The Labour leader said: ‘Trust matters and after the last fortnight the Prime Minister has got a lot of work to do.
‘A central plank of this Government’s promise to the north of England is a Crossrail for the north with at least an entirely new high speed rail line between Manchester and Leeds.
‘A Crossrail for the north, an entirely new line. That is the promise. It has already been made so I don’t want the Prime Minister fobbing off the House about waiting until tomorrow, he can say today: Will he stick by that promise, yes or no?’
Mr Johnson replied: ‘He should wait and see what is going to be announced tomorrow. We will produce a fantastic Integrated Rail Plan and I am not going to spoil it for the House, why would I.’
The PM’s comments prompted laughter and heckles from the Labour benches as the Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle intervened to call for quiet.
Mr Johnson then continued: ‘When we produce our Integrated Rail Plan tomorrow, people across the House and across the country will see what we are doing to cut journey times, to make life easier and better for people in the north east, in the north west, in the Midlands, across the whole of the north of the country and with the biggest programme of investment in rail for a century.’
Sir Keir then hit back as he asked about the eastern leg of HS2, telling the PM: ‘Well, that was a lot of words. But it wasn’t a yes. So that is one important promise to the north that he won’t stand by.
‘Let’s look at another. In February this year the Prime Minister told this House “I can certainly confirm that we are going to develop the eastern leg as well as the whole of HS2”.
‘The whole of HS2. A new high speed line running continuously, no gaps, between Birmingham and Leeds. So will the Prime Minister confirm that he stands by that promise?’
Mr Johnson replied: ‘I’m afraid he is in danger of getting hoisted on his own petard.
‘He needs to wait and see what we announce tomorrow because I think he will find that the people of the north east, of the north west, the people of Leeds, the people of Nottingham, the people of Sheffield… will benefit massively from what we are going to announce.’
Sir Keir said: ‘Again, a lot of words but not a yes. So that is two important promises to the north that he won’t stand by. No wonder trust in the Prime Minister is at an all time low.’
Earlier, Mr Berry had told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he had been personally reassured by the PM that the Government’s rail plans will deliver on past commitments.
He said: ‘Well, the truth is we haven’t seen the Government’s integrated rail strategy yet but I don’t think people need to worry actually because I have been in touch with the Prime Minister about this.
The Government is expected to axe its plans for the eastern branch of HS2 which would link Birmingham and Leeds. The link from Birmingham to Manchester is expected to go ahead
‘He has reassured me that the integrated rail strategy is going to be quote ‘fantastic for the North’.
‘And of course in July 2019 he was a Prime Minister who stood in Manchester and personally committed to deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail.
‘That was a commitment repeated in our November manifesto at the last general election and of course a commitment repeated at the Conservative Party conference.
‘I think commitments made by prime ministers matter, both to the public and to colleagues in Parliament.
‘We haven’t seen this review yet but I and my colleagues across the North are reassured by that personal commitment given to us by the Prime Minister.’
Mr Berry was told that he appeared to be warning the PM to stick to his word.
He replied: ‘I think the Prime Minister will be a paragon of virtue in this regard. It is all very well to talk about what is reported but in politics you can’t get better than a prime ministerial commitment to the project.
‘But let’s be really clear. Colleagues are very focused on east west connectivity. If you live and work in the north of England… it is frankly the most important thing for driving our economy.
‘What we want to see is a high speed rail connectivity across the north delivered in a timely manner and at good value for taxpayers.
‘Beyond that I think colleagues sort of don’t really mind how it is done, they just want to see it is done.
‘Let’s give the Government credit. We have this personal commitment from the Prime Minister and I believe on Thursday that will be a commitment he will deliver on.’
The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said yesterday: ‘Grant Shapps will set out the full details on Thursday. But we are fully committed to strengthening the rail links in our cities, across the Midlands and the North.
‘He recognises the importance of improving journey times across the country.’
Asked whether the plans had been scaled back due to Treasury opposition to the cost, the spokesman said: ‘These are ambitious plans which will involve significant sums of public money.’