They sent the distinctly hassled minister for buses to insist that HS2 had not gone entirely phutt.
It was the parliamentary equivalent of that moment the rail Tannoy goes ‘bing bong’ and everyone is told to go to the car park for the rail-replacement bus.
The minister’s name was Richard Holden and he was responding to an urgent question following leaked rumours HS2 could stop at Birmingham and not continue to sunny Manchester. HS2 was devised by Gordon Brown and Andrew Adonis, supported by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, punted upfield by the political elite and its think-tanks and consultants despite (or because of) crazily rising costs. Was a daft idea finally about to be abandoned? It was left to poor Mr Holden to make the non-announcement.
The secretary of state was elsewhere. The rail minister was in the Czech Republic. Another transport minister was understood to be on his bicycle. The grotty job thus fell to ‘fares please’ Holden, the department’s Reg Varney.
He gave an extraordinary performance, gabbling so much that he barely remembered to draw breath. By the time he finished we were lucky not to have a corpse on our hands.
The minister’s name was Richard Holden and he was responding to an urgent question following leaked rumours HS2 could stop at Birmingham and not continue to sunny Manchester (Pictured: Richard Holden)
Asked twice when the line would reach Manchester, he dodged the question. Invited to affirm his confidence in HS2, he swerved. Buses can do that. Trains can’t (Pictured: HS2 works in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire)
Mrs Slocombe lookalike Dame Rosie Winterton, a deputy speaker, was in the chair by then. Anyone given artificial resuscitation by Dame Rosie would be smeared in lipstick but his heart would be pumpin’ like Mallard’s pistons.
At the despatch box Mr Holden became a demented food mixer, arms flying, eyes rattling in their sockets. Some answers were shouted at such velocity, it was like standing next to an express train clattering past a rural halt.
A few vaguely recognisable words shot by – ‘spades in the ground… development… Treasury colleagues… will keep you updaaaaaaated’ – but the racket was dizzying and the words died on the through draught before peace returned to Adlestrop and the tall hollyhocks stopped swaying.
Did this minister say HS2 was definitely being snipped? No. But the signals were pretty clear. Asked twice when the line would reach Manchester, he dodged the question. Invited to affirm his confidence in HS2, he swerved. Buses can do that. Trains can’t.
‘Is this project going ahead or isn’t it?’ asked Dame Andrea Leadsom (Con, South Northants). ‘My constituency looks like an industrial site.’ ‘It is going ahead,’ said Mr Holden. But he was referring to Northants, which last time I looked at an atlas was south-east of Birmingham.
John Spellar (Lab, Warley), never one for political fashion, said it would be better to scrap it now than blowing another £100billion. His party’s spokesman, Louise Haigh, did not agree. She wanted HS2 to continue as planned. The Tories were ‘cutting the North out in its entirety’. The shock was so great that it had turned her hair the colour of raspberry and orange ripple ice cream.
HS2 was dreamed up by loony Europhiles as the final tentacles of some continental rail system but it was never affordable and never made electoral sense (Pictured: An official mockup of an HS2 train)
‘We Liberal Democrats are firmly behind HS2!’ cried Wera Hobhouse (Bath). Mr Holden expressed surprise at this, given that the Lib Dems won the Amersham by-election attacking the line and that the Lib Dems’ by-election candidate in Mid-Beds was doing the same. Again, shocking. Louise Haigh’s hair will soon be turning green.
Plaid Cymru’s Liz Saville-Roberts was cross HS2 was not going via Wales. White-coated orderlies rushed to the scene. Talking of medical matters, Buckingham’s Greg Smith, who has consistently hated the damn thing, said its business case had not made sense even when it had ‘arms and legs and eyebrows’ reaching to Scotland and elsewhere, but now it was going to be reduced to ‘a legless stump’. It should be put out of its misery.
HS2 was dreamed up by loony Europhiles as the final tentacles of some continental rail system but it was never affordable and never made electoral sense.
I looked to an empty seat at the back of the Tory benches and swear I could sense the air shimmering with rueful laughter – the shade, perhaps, of Cheryl Gillan, late MP for Chesham and Amersham. She always said HS2 was madness. She was right.