The High-Speed Rail Bill pops up in the Commons on Monday – with two attempts to kill it off planned. Michael Fabricant and Cheryl Gillan – whose constituencies would both be affected by the proposed route – have both drawn up motions which call for the House of Commons to decline to give the Bill a second reading.
Fabricant was sacked from his position as Vice Chair of the Conservative party for pushing ahead with his motion (and a number of other things, too) and has the support of Sir Edward Leigh, Jeremy Lefroy, David Davis, David Nuttall, William Cash, Caroline Spelman, Bob Blackman, Chris Kelly and Andrew Turner. Gillan, who left the Cabinet in 2012 partly so that she could focus on campaigning against the line, has a cross-party group of MPs supporting her motion, which may make it more likely to be called by the Speaker. Labour’s Frank Dobson, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins and Natascha Engel, and Green MP Caroline Lucas have all signed Gillan’s clause, along with Tories Andrew Bridgen, Tim Loughton, David Nuttall (again), Caroline Spelman (again), Philip Lee, Dan Byles, Chris Kelly (again), Christopher Chope, David Davis (again) and Andrew Turner (again).
The Conservative whips are not going to any particular lengths at the moment to quell a rebellion, which is expected to lead to between 30 and 40 MPs either voting for whichever fatal motion is called, or simply voting against the second reading of the Bill itself.
But I also understand that when he was chief whip, Patrick McLoughlin told the Prime Minister that there was insufficient support for HS2 without Labour’s backing for it to pass through the Commons. Some of the tweaks to the route, including speeding up its construction in the North, have been attempts to seal in Labour support. The Opposition is unlikely to change its mind on backing the second reading of the Bill in spite of its wavering in recent months and so the Tory whips can to a certain extent leave MPs to vote as they please. They also know that Labour’s support and the inevitability of the Bill passing second reading will mean that the rebellion is contained to those who really care about the Bill, rather than spreading to those who just want to cause trouble for their leader, as it could do if a defeat was possible.
Gillan is also keen to see her proposals for a new longer tunnel under the area of outstanding natural beauty in the Chilterns discussed in the Hybrid Bill Committee. She says:
‘It’s a very sophisticated tunnelling option that will protect the whole of the AONB and this is this scheme that we hope will be adopted by the Hybrid Bill Committee. The costs could in the end by quite neutral as we’re going to be saving compensation payments to people whose houses would have been affected by the line.’
Gillan and backbench colleagues will be making forceful speeches at second reading on Monday afternoon. But do watch out for government ministers who suddenly find they must travel somewhere sufficiently far away that they cannot possibly make it back for this or any other vote.