It has been a long time since Buckinghamshire was a hotbed of subversion – about five centuries, in fact, when the county’s great civil war hero John Hampden championed Parliament against the King. But yesterday it took up arms once again.
Not only was Cheryl Gillan, La Pasionaria of the Chilterns, Tory MP for Chesham and Amersham, leading the charge against the HS2 Bill, but David Lidington, the equally Tory MP for Aylesbury, had declared he would resign as the minister for Europe without adequate “mitigation and compensation” for the feared damage to the gorgeous rolling hills just beyond Metroland.
Whether Lidington’s Nimbyish stand quite qualifies him as a latter-day Hampden remains a matter of dispute, however. For one thing he would only be taking this momentous step, if at all, at a “later stage” of the Bill. Indeed he was not actually present for Monday night’s vote – being conveniently absent “giving a lecture in Estonia”.
How he must have smiled as a purring private secretary pointed out his means of escape from the embarrassment of not joining the Prime Minister in the Yes lobby. “Ah minister, it seems that you will be unavoidably detained in Tallinn, speaking on the future of Europe to the Estonian Business School, making a courtesy call on the Foreign Minister, and taking part in a panel discussion about the internet.”
True, the Foreign Office insisted on Monday that the visit had been planned “for months”. And in his earlier statement on Ukraine, William Hague loyally stressed the importance of his deputy’s mission, as if the entire future of East-West relations rested on it. But the alibi could well catch on as a euphemism for a diplomatic absences.
“This could be tricky in your constituency, old boy,” you can imagine future Chief Whips saying, “Time for a lecture in Estonia?”
Meanwhile, had the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin’s big speech been a train it would have been anything but high speed. He took so many interventions from hostile MPs that you began to wonder if he really wanted to reach his destination. With his McLoughlinesque version of eloquence he insisted that “it is time for better links north to south and east to west, time to connect to world markets to make the most of their skills and talents, time for HS2”.
The rebels were unimpressed. But they have one worry, the prominence in their midst of the flamboyant flaxen-tonsured Tory Michael Fabricant, who declared that under present plans the line “doesn’t even link with the Channel ports … with HS1 and … with whichever airport will be chosen by your own department to have the third runway”. On paper these are persuasive arguments. From Fabricant’s mouth they are somehow hard to take as seriously as they deserve.