Cameron’s high-speed ambitions may be derailed in the shires

London Letter: shire Tories feel their views are being ignored by the prime minister

In times past, British monarchs had to keep a close eye on the barons in the shires, fearful that any change in loyalty threatened disaster to their hold on the Crown. Today, David Cameron faces similar problems on multiple fronts, including high-speed rail.

Under current plans, a near-£50 billion high-speed railway would leave Euston station bound for Birmingham 140 miles away at speeds of 225mph, before splitting north of the west Midlands city into two lines for Manchester and Leeds. The first phase, to be completed by 2026, will run through the Chilterns, Warwickshire, on to Birmingham International and into south Northamptonshire before reaching Curzon Street station in central Birmingham.

Much of that route passes through staunch Conservative constituencies, including Chesham and Amersham, currently occupied by the former Welsh Secretary, Cheryl Gillian, who has become a vocal opponent of HS2 – as the project is known – ever since Cameron sacked her from the cabinet.

Exaggerated benefits
In the Commons yesterday, she railed against it. Economic benefits are exaggerated, construction difficulties minimised, while travellers will save time getting to stations on the outskirts of cities only to lose it Ryanair-style as they make their way into their centres, she said.


Fellow Conservative Andrew Bridgen warned that the line would suck economic life from the north of England.

The constituencies between London and Birmingham have a different problem, believing they will get the disruption caused by the railway, but few of the benefits since high-speed rail is not high-speed if there are too many stations.

Local polling suggests that a majority are either against HS2, or unconvinced of its merits, seemingly preferring greater investment, or even the re-nationalisation of the existing network – one that is growing passenger numbers faster than anywhere else in Europe.

The project has become a totem for Cameron, who is, by all accounts, genuinely convinced of its merits. Labour, however, has begun to go wobbly on the matter, even though it was they who dreamt it up.

Labour's Mary Creagh has demanded clarity from Cameron, provoking contemptuous snorts from Conservative supporters of the project, who argue that Labour is simply avoiding saying whether it backs it, or not. The changing attitudes in Labour are surprising, since leaders of northern city councils – Labour's heartland – are keen on the project.

HS2 has a large pot of cash already to cope with the day when it runs over budget, which leaves the possibility that the second phase could be built quicker than its 2032 deadline.

However, long-term vision is one thing. Elections are won in the here and now. The Conservatives hold the majority of seats along the southern end of the route, ones that will be crucial if the party is to have any chance of single-party rule after 2015.

For months, the region has been fretting on a number of fronts, particularly over the Conservative-led demands in Whitehall for more housing – an ambition that clashes with the opinion of locals, who worry about the usual things people worry about when it comes to planning.

Tempers are not made better by the fact that leading Conservatives appear unable to avoid giving off the air of people who have been irritated by the annoying habits of peasantry in the fields.

The Countryside Alliance is the voice for some of the opinions of the region. In 2002, it put 400,000 people on the streets of London to protest about the way rural dwellers were being ignored by Labour, along with opposing the ban on hunting.

Today, as this week's Spectator points out, 13 per cent of its members are ready to vote for the UK Independence Party if there was an election in the morning, while 66 per cent are guaranteed Conservative – still high, but 20 points down on where it was a few years ago.

Country dwellers' representative in Cabinet, Owen Paterson, believes the Conservatives are risking disaster if they continue their wayward path.

Regarded as a backwoodsman by some, Paterson is a man with little self doubt, believing that the fox-hunting ban is idiotic and wind turbines are a blot on the landscape. Many agree with him.

Now, Conservative ministers are considering changes to hunting laws . Fox hunting is genuinely an important issue with many shire Tories.

However, its real significance is as an illustration of the way in which they believe that Cameron – an Oxfordshire MP, remember – has forgotten them.