George Osborne has predicted that Boris Johnson will perform a U-turn on his widely criticised decision to scale back rail improvements in the north of England.
Hitting out at the prime minister for lacking “ambition”, the former chancellor described the government’s proposals this week as “pretty disappointing” and highlighted the importance of marginal seats around Bradford and Leeds.
His intervention comes after ministers unveiled long-awaited plans for rail services in the north of England and faced accusations of “betrayal” for breaking a pledge to build the HS3 line, between Manchester and Leeds, and the eastern leg of HS2, serving the Midlands and Yorkshire.
Branding the scaled-back plans a “second-class option”, Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said his party remained committed to building the eastern leg of HS2, while northern leaders demanded the integrated rail review be put to a free vote in the Commons.
Mr Johnson, however, insisted this week that his critics were talking “total rubbish” and that there was some good news in the £96bn plans for the railways – referring to plans to electrify the Transpennine route and the Midland main line.
Mr Osborne, who was chancellor during David Cameron’s premiership between 2010 and 2016, told the Financial Times: “Frankly, I don’t think high-speed rail in the east of England, up to Yorkshire, is dead yet.”
He went on: “You’ve had the Labour Party commit very quickly to build it; I think the pressure will grow on the Conservatives because, actually, there are quite a lot of marginal seats around Bradford and Leeds.
“I think the politics of that over the next two years will see – and it wouldn’t be for the first time – our prime minister execute a U-turn and come back to promising an eastern leg of HS2, just over a longer period of time.”
While welcoming the £96bn overall upgrade for railways, the former chancellor, who chairs the Northern Powerhouse Partnership group, also said: “It’s not often you can say this about Boris Johnson, but he lacks ambition.”
Responding to Mr Osborne’s comments, shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said: “George Osborne has confirmed what many of us have been saying – the government doesn’t have a plan to rebalance our economy.
“It’s clear what we saw this week was the ‘great train robbery’. Boris Johnson must do the right thing and reverse Thursday’s decision. Now we know only Labour will deliver the investment the north needs: only Labour is committed to implementing HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail in full, and get[ting] all parts of the country firing on all cylinders.”
On a visit to a Network Rail logistics hub on Thursday, Mr Johnson dismissed the charges of broken promises as “total rubbish”, insisting that the government would deliver on them “eventually”.
“Of course there are going to be people who always want everything at once. And there are lots of people who are [going to] say, ‘Look, what we should do is carve huge new railways through virgin territory, smashing through unspoilt countryside and villages and do it all at once,’” he said.
“The problem with that is those extra high-speed lines take decades, and they don’t deliver the commuter benefits that I’m talking about. We will eventually do them.”