POLITICS
31/10/2013 14:07 GMT | Updated 31/10/2013 14:24 GMT

17 Tory MPs Rebel Against Multi-Billion HS2 Rail Plan

PA
Tory Cheryl Gillan has savaged the HS2 plans

MPs have overwhelmingly voted in favour of constructing the multi-billion new high-speed rail line known as HS2, but 17 Tory MPs rebelled against the government on Thursday and opposed the Bill.

The government has argued the £50bn infrastructure project that would connect London to Manchester via Birmingham is needed to increase much needed rail capacity as well as close the economic north-south divide.

However critics believe the money could be better spent on other transport projects, including better connections between northern cities, and have expressed fear that the new line will only serve to suck more investment and people down to London rather than spreading wealth around the country.

In total the HS2 paving Bill, which allows the government to begin spending money on the project, passed the Commons 350 to 34 on Thursday afternoon. The rebellion of 17 Tories is actually fewer than the 21 who rebelled on an earlier vote on the Bill at its second reading - which will disappoint those opposed to the legislation who wanted at the very least to see that number rise.

Unfortunately for David Cameron the proposed line cuts through the constituencies of several Conservative MPs, with many constituents unhappy with the idea of a new noisy rail line at the bottom of their gardens. Many of these Tories would have been among those who voted against the prime minister.

The rebellion was not as high as the 60 that had been predicted earlier this week. Tory rebels sought to play down this prediction on the eve of the vote, noting the government Whips office had been working hard to whittle down the number. Conservatives minded to vote against the Bill were offered incentives, including more time off in exchange for their loyalty.

Former Welsh secretary Cheryl Gillan, the leading anti-HS2 Conservative, told MPs the project was destined to be a "white elephant" and said while she did not want to see it built at all - the current plan was fundamentally flawed.

"It doesn't even go into the centre of the cities it is supposed to serve," she said. "All the time savings that are claimed by the government come to naught as you have to make your way from somewhere outside the city centre [to the new stations]."

Cameron has said the project can only go ahead if it has cross-party support. And Labour, who first conceived the project while in government, has wobbled over whether to continue to back it.

Shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh insisted Labour was the "true friend of HS2" and that the Opposition would back the investment. "HS2 is a huge project which is managed properly will being great social economic and environmental benefits to this country," she said. "It will fall to the next government, a Labour government, to build HS2."

However Labour's position remains somewhat murky, with Ed Balls having strongly hinted he would ditch his support if the price tag becomes too high.

Tory MPs are also worried that Labour only voted in favour of the Bill today in order to ensure the government was committed to the project. North West Leicestershire MP Andrew Bridgen told The Huffington Post UK on the eve of the vote he feared Ed Miliband and Balls were setting a trap.

"They want us right down the track," Bridgen said. "Labour will support the Bill going forward so we are fully committed. Labour want to leave us shunted into political siding, very exposed. They will leave the Conservative Party in a very vulnerable position, damaged in the Shires and the marginals. The support of the Opposition is the rope's support to the hanged man. Labour are giving us enough rope to hang ourselves. It's a great shame to be run over by a train you can see coming a mile off."

And Gillan said she was not "fooled" by the new "love-in" between the government and Labour. "I am pretty sure Labour will play politics right up to the wire."

On Wednesday Nick Clegg indicated that support for the high-speed rail link between London and the north would be a red line in any coalition discussions with Labour at the next election. Asked if he would ever compromise on HS2 in a future government, Clegg told reporters at a press conference in Westminster: "No. I was up in Sheffield yesterday talking to business leaders and they are absolutely appalled at the way in which Labour appears to be betraying the north."