By Andrew Gilligan
A further two ministers have said they are strongly opposed to the link and two more have expressed reservations. Many backbenchers of all parties, plus the Speaker, John Bercow, have also pledged to fight the plan.
The Government is preparing a formal consultation on the
£17 billion London to Birmingham line, which would see up to 18 trains an hour travel at 250mph through the heart of the Chilterns, Buckinghamshire and Warwickshire.
Because of the high speeds involved, the tracks must be relatively straight and level and would require many cuttings and viaducts. Hundreds of homes would have to be demolished.
Supporters, including Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, say the line is essential to promote economic growth and low-carbon travel. Opponents say that neither the economic nor the environmental case for the project stacks up.
Cheryl Gillan, the Welsh Secretary and MP for Chesham and Amersham, one of the areas that would be worst-affected by the line, said: “I would defy the party whip – be very, very sure of that. My constituency comes first in all instances. The impact on the whole area would be absolutely phenomenal.”
David Lidington, the Foreign Office minister, who is MP for Aylesbury, said: “If it came down to it, I would vote against the route as proposed. I am personally against it.”
He described the link, which would have no station in the Aylesbury area, as a “devastating blow” for his constituency.
Jeremy Wright, a Government whip and MP for Kenilworth, said the proposed route, which would pass through the narrow strip of Green Belt separating his town from Coventry, was “not the right one”.
“My constituency has always been most important to me. I’ve made it quite clear to my constituents that if I didn’t believe I could do my job effectively as their advocate and their representative and simultaneously be a minister, then I would not be a minister,” he said. He added that he did not believe it was “a hopeless cause”.
For a minister or whip to break party discipline and vote against the Government is automatically a resigning matter. The three MPs are understood to hope that it will not come to that and are lobbying colleagues to change their minds. Sources close to Miss Gillan said the Prime Minister had stressed that the precise route had yet to be fixed.
Two other Tory ministers have expressed strong opposition to the link, though have not yet gone as far as saying that they will vote against it. Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, said: “I continue to have serious doubts. It’s clearly going to have a negative impact on the Chilterns.” Mr Grieve is MP for Beaconsfield and the line will skirt the northern edge of his constituency.
Michael Fabricant, MP for Lichfield and a government whip, told his local paper that a proposed new viaduct over part of the historic cathedral city was “unacceptable” and said the whole line should be cancelled.
Although construction is not expected to begin until 2017, after the next election, the Government wants to pass a hybrid Bill giving powers to build the line before 2015, requiring MPs to make a decision on where they stand in this parliament.