5 Jun 2018

Cabinet ministers approve new Heathrow runway plan – but the vote could be complicated

Looking back through the Commons archive on Heathrow expansion is a bracing experience. Alistair Darling at the Transport Department in 2003 warns that future generations won’t forgive governments “10 or 20 years from now” if they haven’t acted on airport expansion. Ministers like Philip Hammond complain about the damage to local communities if Heathrow is expanded. On and on it goes.

Today was a milestone but opponents of the Heathrow Third Runway are determined it isn’t the end of the story. There was a telling amount of message coordination across the Commons amongst opponents of the Third Runway today. All critics mentioned how taxpayers would end up picking up a massive bill. It’s not just our shattered roof tiles was the message but your pocket.

The Foreign Secretary repeated his opposition to Heathrow expansion at this morning’s Cabinet but the policy had already been signed off at the Cabinet Committee meeting a moment earlier. In a letter to MPs sent this afternoon, the PM has said that Tories with a longstanding constituency commitment on the issue will be allowed to give local press interviews expressing their opposition to government policy but there is no clarification on whether they will be allowed any other leniency. The government plans to have a three line whip on the issue when the vote comes in the next few weeks.

It doesn’t sound as though Boris Johnson intends to resign over the issue. There have been suggestions he might find himself on business abroad when the vote happens. Not so much lying down in front of the bulldozers (as he promised at the count in his constituency in the 2015 general election) but stretching out on a business class flatbed maybe?

Labour has its own issues presented by the Heathrow vote. The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has a lifelong opposition to Heathrow expansion behind him. Jeremy Corbyn has a less voluble but instinctive coolness on the project. But Unite’s General Secretary waded in with a call for Labour to back the expansion today. The GMB union thinks the same way on this.

Something like three quarters of Labour MPs in the last parliament were estimated to back Heathrow expansion. Even if it’s less than that now the party has a management issue on its hands trying to find its way through this vote.

Labour could attempt its own version of the Tory long leash, helping out MPs with constituency concerns on the issue with an unwhipped vote safe in the knowledge that there’d be plenty of Labour MPs willing to help the government over the line and get the airport expansion. But one Shadow Cabinet member said they thought the signs were that the government’s proposals in no way met the party’s tests and there could yet be a decision to oppose the measure.

You get the impression the party hasn’t fully engaged with this yet as it’s been poring over the Brexit votes next week.

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