HS2 vote: the Tory and Labour rebels

18 Conservatives and 11 Labour MPs voted against the new high speed line. But the real battle will come next spring.

Update: As I wrote, the Tories are making much of Ed Balls's absence from the vote, but Labour sources point out that Ed Miliband also didn't attend, along with most Labour MPs (it was a one-line whip). And, as no one has pointed out yet, nor did David Cameron.

HS2 has comfortably cleared its first parliamentary hurdle, with 350 MPs voting in favour of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill and just 34 against. The rebels included 18 Tories, a smaller number than originally expected, and 11 Labour MPs. But today's division was a mere hors d'oeuvre to the main vote next spring on the Hybrid Bill (which would grant the government the power to compulsorily purchase the land required to build and operate the new line), with many would-be opponents choosing to stay away. Among those not present, as the Tories have mischievously noted, was Ed Balls, who sparked the recent speculation that Labour could come out against the project when he declared in his conference speech, "the question is – not just whether a new High Speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country."

But after David Cameron's threat to cancel the project if Labour withdraws its support, the party does appear to be back on board. In her speech to the Commons, shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh described Labour as "the the true friends of HS2" and ended by vowing, "it will fall to the next Labour government – on time and on budget." This suggests, as I wrote earlier this week, that Labour's focus is now on pushing the government to reduce the cost of the line (most notably the £14.4bn contingency fund) and on claiming victory if it succeeds in doing so. By taking aim at the spiralling cost of HS2 ("all they've done since coming to office is add £10bn to it," Andrew Adonis recently complained to me), the party is seeking to demonstrate its commitment to fiscal responsibility and to dispel the belief that it believes the answer to every problem always lies in spending more money.

Below is a full list of the Labour and Tory rebels.

Conservative rebels (18)

Steve Baker

John Baron

Andrew Bridgen

Dan Byles

Willliam Cash

Christopher Chope

Philip Davies

David Davis

Cheryl Gillan

Philip Hollobone

Chris Kelly

Jeremy Lefroy

Julian Lewis

David Nuttall

Mark Pawsey

Chris White

Bill Wiggin

Teller: Anne Main

Labour rebels (11)

Jeremy Corbyn

Jim Cunningham

Frank Dobson

Natascha Engel

Jim Fitzpatrick

Roger Godsiff

Kate Hoey

John McDonnell

Geoffrey Robinson

Barry Sheerman

Dennis Skinner

Teller: Kelvin Hopkins

A 'Stop HS2' poster is fixed to a tree in the countryside surrounding the village of Middleton in Staffordshire. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.