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It is never been easy for an MP, if the whips pull him one way and his constituents the other, to go with the former. This is as it should be: MPs are elected to represent the people of the seat they represent. However, matters aren’t quite that simple. After all, the national interest matters at least as much as the local interest. So what should happen if an MP thinks it’s in the national interest, for example, for fracking to take place in his constituency, or an airport to be built in it, or a by-pass to run through it? What should he do if he believes his constituents to be wrong? Or if he – or she – is a Minister?
To by-pass, we can add railway line – or HS2, to be more specific. And we can be precise, too, about the Minister this morning. Today’s Daily Telegraph splash headline is: “Treasury Minister’s battle to scrap HS2”. This is just a little misleading. The Minister in question is Andrea Leadsom, the newly-appointed Economic Secretary to the Treasury, through part of whose constituency HS2 runs.
The paper has enterprisingly dug out a series of quotes from the public statements of those Ministers whose constituents are in its judgement most affected by the scheme – including those, of course, on their websites. It has clearly judged Leadsom’s to be the most vehement, and has thus put her name in headlights. They were made before she was appointed, which is why its headline is vulnerable to being mis-read. The explanation for her outspokenness may well be that she has only recently been made a Minister: her statements have thus been less guarded than those of longer-standing ones who are also opposed to the scheme.
The traditional escape-route for Ministers, when contentious votes loom (such as the HS2 one, which takes place next week), is for them to be, ahem, unavoidably committed elsewhere. The paper thus reports that David Lidington is to be in Estonia, and that Dominic Grieve, Nick Hurd, and Jeremy Wright “were unable to say last night if they would be in the Commons”. All are affected.
These absences have never been good enough for some constituents, and my sense is that their number is steadily rising. Why? Because being an MP is increasingly seen as being a “job”, and if the job of a Parliamentarian is to represent his constituents, it follows that he must vote against the Government when they so require. As this view of what an MP is has become more widespread, so constituencies have become more competitive. There is no longer such a thing as a “safe seat” – at by-elections, at least. Exercises such as the Telegraph’s today thus pack more of a political punch. As I write, Leadsom’s website is down, together with those past statements.
This site’s view is that she is right, and that HS2 throws up more problems than it solves. But as Cheryl Gillan wrote yesterday on this site, the bill will pass “since it directly affects so few constituencies and the three main parties are whipped in favour of the project”. The combination of opponents – MPs with a local interest or who are fiscal hawks or both – isn’t big enough to stop it.
What may do is a combination of Treasury hostility to the scheme plus, if Ed Balls becomes Chancellor in a Miliband-led government next year, his own hostility to it. A newly-elected Labour Government would scrabble for ways of protecting its welfare client state. Axeing capital projects would be one means – and not a good one, whatever one thinks of HS2. But whatever may happen next year, expect constituency pressure to rise on those Ministers in the meantime. The join where the executive meets the legislature is greater under pressure than ever before. We caught a glimpse of its consequences when Justine Greening, that steadfast opponent of a third runway at Heathrow, was suddenly shunted out of Transport and moved to International Development.