Rebellions and notable absences fail to stop HS2

HS2 easily passed its latest parliament hurdle last night, as the last remaining barriers to its progress fell away.

With Labour now throwing its support behind the project, the main second reading vote passed by 452 to 41.

But 50 MPs – 33 of them Tories – voted in favour of a wrecking amendment. They were defeated by 401 votes.

The amendment, by former Cabinet minister and now anti-HS2 ringleader Cheryl Gillan, criticised the project and ministers' refusal to publish a Major Authorities Project report into the risks of the scheme.

Chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers Graham Brady and former Cabinet minister Caroline Spelman backed the amendment, as did 13 Labour MPs

But just as telling was the number of ministers with seats along the route who were notably absent last night.

Attorney general Dominic Grieve, a Buckinghamshire MP representing Beaconsfield, was in Newcastle, on what his office said was a long-planned arrangement.

Andrea Leadsom, who vocally criticised the project until she was elevated to Treasury minister, was in Brussels.

Europe Minister David Lidington was on an official visit to Estonia but he said he would fall on his sword if he failed to secure adequate mitigation and compensation for his local area.

"I will resign at a later stage of the bill if they don't get mitigation, and that for me includes a Chilterns tunnel," he told the Bucks Herald newspaper.

Any minister unprepared to support the legislation in the Commons would have had to leave the front bench.

"If I stood down I would just be one more MP that is against HS2, but by staying in I have the inside track, it's a pragmatic political judgment," he added.

Gillan said Lidington would be more influential from within government.

"As it stands, Buckinghamshire will take all the pain and have none of the gain," she said.

"It is important to remember the voices of our Buckinghamshire colleagues in government are equally as important as backbenchers' voices to speak for us, if not more so. I want allies inside government as well as on the backbenches as we scrutinise this project."

David Cameron himself was absent for the vote, a decision Labour shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh branded "extraordinary" on Twitter.

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said work would start in 2017 as planned.

"By voting in favour of the hybrid Bill, parliament has made a clear commitment to a key part of the government's long term economic plan," he said.

"HS2 is a once in a generation opportunity to create jobs and develop skills, provide the extra space we need on our rail network for commuters and freight and better connect our biggest cities.

"I am aware of the concerns some who live very close to the HS2 route have. I am confident however that by working together we can ensure this vital new north-south railway is designed in the right way, and we will have spades in the ground in 2017 as planned."

Gillan warned that the remaining passage of the bill would be given laser-like attention by critics in parliament.

"This is a large number of MPs unconvinced that HS2 is the solution to our country's infrastructure problems," she said.

"Government should realise that this project will be closely scrutinised every step of the way.

"Many colleagues also abstained this evening which shows that the scepticism of this project runs much more deeply than the voting figures suggest."

The London-West Midlands portion of the line is expected to open by 2026, with the Manchester and Leeds portion finished by 2032.