Mr Harper repeatedly insisted that he was not willing to discuss “speculation”, after The Independent revealed Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are in talks to scrap the Birmingham to Manchester route.
It comes as former Tory PM Theresa May become the latest senior Conservative to call for HS2 not to be scaled back – saying she was “arguing” with the Sunak government to build it in full.
She joined Boris Johnson, who said axing phase 2 would be a “betrayal” of the north and levelling up, warning Mr Sunak: “We must be out of our minds.”
Mr Harper was grilled on the future of HS2 during a painful interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, with host Mishal Husain asking if “something had changed” in the promise to build the line to Manchester.
“We’re getting on with building the project [on phase 1],” the transport secretary replied. “Spades are in the ground. I’m not going to comment on speculation. We’re focused on delivering the project.”
Pressed again on why a high-speed route to Manchester had been promised and whether the plan had changed, Mr Harper said: “We’re getting on with delivering. I’m not going to get into speculation. It’s speculation at the moment.”
The BBC host grew increasingly frustrated as she continued to press the cabinet minister, only for Mr Harper to repeatedly insist: “I’m not to comment on speculation.”
Ms Husain asked: “Obviously you can understand why people are concerned that something very serious is happening to change the plan of this project?” He replied: “You’re coming with lots of different ways to comment on speculation.”
Despite the obfuscation, Mr Sunak has given the clearest suggestion yet that he intends to scrap the Birmingham to Manchester route. In an interview with The Sun, the Tory leader was asked about whether high-speed trains would ever link Birmingham and Manchester.
He said the north needed more than HS2, with connections required between the towns and cities of the region. “East to west – that is the thing that the north wants and that is what we’re doing,” he said.
Senior red wall Tories in the influential Northern Research Group have signalled they are willing to accept a delay to the northern leg of HS2 – so long as the PM commits to east-west rail projects known as Northern Powerhouse Rail.
Meanwhile, in our latest exclusive, The Independent revealed that a leaked paper ordered to explore HS2 cuts warned it would lead to travel chaos – endless queueing and the “gross exceedance” of passenger comfort.
Several senior Tories have joined Labour mayors and business leaders in demanding that Mr Sunak reconsiders cuts and recommits to building the high-speed rail line in full.
In his latest Mail column, Mr Johnson said that delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail – a link between the largest cities in the North, crossing over the Pennines – “only makes sense with the northern leg of HS2”.
“If we delay or cut the northern legs, if we truncate HS2 – then we are betraying the north of the country and the whole agenda of levelling up,” Mr Johnson said.
Ms May, asked during a Q&A at Henley Literary Festival whether HS2’s northern leg should be scrapped, said: “The answer is no … We need more railway capacity to serve the north west.”
The ex-PM said she also had “an issue” with the idea the high-speed rail could stops at Old Oak Common rather than Euston. “It is going to make our railway journeys into London longer. So I am arguing with government: ‘Don’t stop at Old Oak Common. You need to take it into Euston because my constituents will be disadvantaged if you don’t’.”
Sir Jeremy Wright, a former attorney general and culture secretary, added his voice to the mix – pressing ministers to “finish the job”.
The senior Tory said HS2 would never have been given approval by parliament if it had only been intended it between London and Birmingham – saying the “strategic benefits just aren’t there” and that the “price of it would simply be too high”.
A leaked paper – drawn up ahead of HS2 talks between the prime minister and his chancellor, and marked “Official-Sensitive” – was ordered this year by the Department for Transport as it sought to explore cost-saving measures after the budget to rebuild Euston ballooned by £2.2bn.
But the document, seen by The Independent, found that failing to rebuild the busy railway hub as planned under the £45bn first phase of the project would lead to travel chaos, including endless queueing and the “gross exceedance of standard passenger comfort levels” through overcrowding.