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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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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