Fierce Conservative opposition to HS2 largely melted away as it got the go-ahead on Tuesday, although some backbenchers warned that No 10 would ultimately be responsible for an expensive disaster.
Dame Cheryl Gillan, a former cabinet minister who has led opposition to the high-speed rail line for the best part of a decade, said she was very disappointed with the decision, predicted it would be “not just a white elephant but a scandal” and called for its governance to be radically improved.
The MP for Chesham and Amersham welcomed the prime minister’s decision to appoint a minister to oversee the project from now on, but pledged to “continue to forensically scrutinise this project”.
“Both HS2 personnel and government must be held to account for the damage that they have already done to community relations and people’s lives in Buckinghamshire,” she said.
Victoria Prentis, the Conservative MP for North Oxfordshire who also led the opposition to HS2 among MPs, said the last three years had “given us a few lessons in what gracious defeat looks like”, adding: “While I remain worried by the environmental, financial and governance issues of this project, I really do wish it all the best.”
Another persistent critic of the project, Andrew Bridgen, the MP for North West Leicestershire, warned in the House of Commons that it would be an “albatross” around the government’s neck.
“HS2 is unloved, unwanted and has been grossly mismanaged. It very adversely affects my constituents,” he said.
“Does the prime minister appreciate my and my constituents’ concerns that this could well be an albatross around this government and the country’s neck moving forward, and doesn’t it set the bar very low for the future delivery of infrastructure projects on time and on budget by all future governments?”
Every great infrastructure project is opposed by people at this stage
Boris Johnson gave the objections short shrift, saying “every great infrastructure project is opposed by people at this stage”.
The prime minister said: “The M25 had 39 separate planning inquiries. The Treasury was against the M25, and, I seem to remember, delivering the Olympics, and it tried to get rid of Crossrail. Every single infrastructure project is opposed at these critical moments. We have got to have the guts and the foresight to drive it through.”
Several other MPs raised the problem of their constituents having the threat of compulsory purchase to make way for the rail line hanging over them for years. Theodora Clarke, a new MP for Stafford, called on him to “end uncertainty for my constituents in Stafford who have waited years for their houses to be bought and for compensation to be paid”.
Michael Fabricant, the MP for Lichfield, said it was “important that we compensate well those people in my constituency – and in his [Johnson’s] – who will be affected by it”.
The prime minister said he “apologised to everybody for the uncertainty that has been involved” and pledged to press ahead with compensation as soon as possible.
But the scale of the discontent was nowhere near levels seen in the past, for example in 2014 when 34 Tory MPs voted against the passage of an HS2 bill or in favour of amending it and a further 47 were absent.
Andrea Leadsom, the business secretary, is known to be a cabinet sceptic about HS2, along with the prime minister’s transport adviser, Andrew Gilligan, and his senior adviser, Dominic Cummings.
However, the majority of the cabinet – including the prime minister, the chancellor, Sajid Javid, and Grant Shapps, the transport secretary – came down in its favour.
Responding to Johnson’s announcement in the Commons, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, criticised the government’s management of the project, which was first announced by Labour in 2009, and called for fares to be affordable. “If it’s to have public support, the fares on HS2 must be affordable and comparable with the rest of the fare system on the railway network,” he said.
Corbyn also highlighted the prime minister’s tendency to announce “big shiny projects” that later failed. Referring to No 10’s decision to explore the possibility of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland, he joked: “Why not go the whole hog and make it a garden bridge connected to an airport on the sea? It stands as much chance of actually being built as any of those failed projects the former mayor of London put forward.”