HS2 vote: PM faces Tory rebels but Miliband has real headache
'Battle for control' between Miliband and Balls as Labour goes into today's vote still dithering
THE BOOKIES are betting on between 30 and 50 Tory rebels voting against the government later today over the controversial £50bn high speed rail line that is going to tear a swathe through Tory constituencies if it ever gets the go-ahead.
This evening's vote is on a so-called 'paving' measure to release cash to pay for surveys, buy property and compensate evicted residents. It is not the crunch vote - do we or don't we build the thing? - that will come next spring.
Nevertheless, such a big rebellion is worrying for David Cameron because it is yet another sign that he is losing touch with his own MPs and their supporters in what used to be the Tory shires. They accuse Dave the Moderniser of treating his own core voters with contempt.
The rebels include former ministers such as Cheryl Gillan, whose Chesham and Amersham constituency will be torn up by the line.
As Ben Brogan, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, says in a briefing note this morning, "The shires are ditching Dave." He points to a new poll which shows that only 66 per cent of Countryside Alliance members intend to vote Conservative at the general election - a fall of more than 20 percentage points from 2010.
Nick Clegg's Lib Dems are in favour of HS2 but Labour could literally stop the project in its tracks by joining the Tory rebels in voting against it - not today, when Labour MPs will be whipped to vote with the government on the paving measure, but next spring when Eds Miliband and Balls will have to decide (finally) which way to jump.
So far, the Labour leader and his shadow chancellor have dithered. First they were full steam ahead in favour - it was a Labour invention, after all. Then they got frightened by the rising cost and Balls slammed the brakes on. Yesterday at Prime Minister's Questions, as Cameron taunted Labour for its indecision, Balls bellowed at the PM across the despatch box that he was "only doing what his Chancellor should do".
As for Miliband, he is known to be keener on the project than Balls, well aware that Labour council chiefs and MPs in northern cities such as Liverpool, gung-ho for HS2, are furious at the dithering, accusing the party leadership of "betraying the north".
But still Miliband is edging ahead like a commuter train with an amber light against it. Cameron accused him at PMQs of having "cowered in his office, too weak to make a decision".
Blogging afterwards, James Kirkup, political editor of the Daily Telegraph, said an unnamed shadow cabinet minister was reporting a "titanic struggle" between Miliband and Balls, adding ominously: "It's about a lot more than HS2. It's about control."
The headlines tomorrow morning will likely focus on Cameron's rebels. But it's Ed Miliband who has the real headache. ·