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)
Teller: Anne Main
Labour rebels (11)
Teller: Kelvin Hopkins