Boris Johnson has said delaying or scrapping the northern leg of HS2 would be “betraying the north of the country and the whole agenda of levelling up”.
The ex-prime minister’s intervention on the eve of the party’s conference comes as Sky News understands the government is set to scrap or delay the Birmingham to Manchester leg of the high-speed railway.
Writing in his weekly Daily Mail column, Mr Johnson appealed to his former chancellor to show Britain still has “the requisite guts and ambition” to invest in infrastructure and labelled the aim of saving money “deluded”.
Mr Johnson – who made levelling up a centrepiece of his 2019 manifesto and government – said when he heard reports the northern leg was set to be delayed or cancelled, he let out a “long, low despairing groan”.
He wrote: “Cancel HS2? Cut off the northern legs? We must be out of our minds.”
Mr Johnson said London’s Old Oak Common – where the line could end instead of Euston – is “nowhere near” the centre of the capital.
He said ending it there would add half an hour to the journey and leave it a “total white elephant, the vanity project to end all vanity projects”.
“If we truncate HS2 – then we are betraying the north of the country and the whole agenda of levelling up,” he added.
Mr Johnson said Birmingham had “already seen stunning investment on the back of HS2”, and that alongside Northern Powerhouse rail, the same would happen in Manchester – helping end “the injustice of the infrastructure gap”.
He said cancelling the railway to save money would be “deluded”, but also acknowledged we need to “grip the costs”.
The former prime minister added: “Isn’t it time to corral the businesses, as we did in London, and get them to contribute?
“Never forget that around a third of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail financing came from private-sector contributions.”
He went on: “We simply cannot afford to abandon this vision now – to panic, and throw up our hands, and say it is all too difficult.”
“This is a pivotal moment, a time when we need to show, as a country, that we still have the requisite guts and ambition.
Mr Johnson wrote: “I can tell you that across the world there are investors with trillions watching and waiting to see whether they would be right to invest in the talent and genius of these great northern cities.
“The right transport connections are a vital part of their calculations.
“They need certainty, and they need it now. Let’s cut the cackle and get on with it.”
HS2 was first touted by Labour in 2009, before it was signed off by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government.
It was designed to run at up to 225mph and connect the South, the Midlands and the north of England. If the Manchester leg were axed, it would be the latest watering down of the project.
The eastern leg to Leeds has already been scrapped and work between Birmingham and Crewe delayed due to the impact of inflation.
Some estimates have put the total cost at more than £100bn, while the project has been rated “unachievable” by the infrastructure watchdog.
The line has numerous defenders, from Tory grandees like Lord Heseltine and former chancellor George Osborne, to Labour’s regional mayors who have criticised the government for not involving them in decisions on its future.
An announcement on the scrapping of phase two and the London terminus had been expected this week – but has yet to surface.