25 Oct 2016

Heathrow: a political odyssey as parties shift position

Theresa May has said of the Heathrow plans for a second runway: “I know from all the letters and emails I get that many local people will be devastated by the Government’s decision.” She went on:  “A third runway will result in thousands of additional flights, increased noise and more pollution for thousands of people.”

Theresa May in 2009 attacking Heathrow expansion

Actually, she wrote that in 2008. It was dug up from her website by one of the campaigns and had a timely second run in today’s Sun.

It is 48 years since a third runway at Heathrow was first raised by Harold Wilson’s review of airport provision in the South East.

This political odyssey has seen parties and individual politicians shuffle from one side of the argument to the other with gay abandon. The Tories under David Cameron were adamantly against. Then in office after 2010 top Tories like George Osborne tried to win David Cameron round. Mr Osborne was even said to be in favour of a fourth runway. David Cameron was said to be terrified of the “split screen moment,” as he called it, that could follow as his past attacks on a third runway were played off the back of new support.

Labour backed a third runway and then, in opposition under Ed Miliband, backed off the idea.

Labour today is signalling its support even though the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell (not present in the chamber today for the statement on Heathrow), only a few years ago lifted the mace in protest at the then Labour government’s plans and was suspended from the Commons for his trouble.

Boris Johnson, using the limited and strictly policed freedom from Cabinet collective responsibility he’s been given to voice  his opposition to a third runway, said he didn’t think Heathrow would happen because legal challenges would help to stop it. His successor as London Mayor, Sadiq Khan (himself once a supporter of the 3rd runway), said his office might help several councils with their legal challenges.

But if the government can get to the point of a Commons vote, pencilled in for late next year or early 2018, it will have the bulk of its own party, Labour MPs and the SNP on side. That’s a luxury that previous attempts to get a third runway haven’t been able to rely on. Other obstacles could sink it, but the parliamentary balance of forces and one big event this June might have made it more likely than ever before.

Brexit changed the dynamics of this argument for some ministers. You have to look mad keen for business opportunities, the argument in government runs, you can’t afford to play into a narrative that Britain is turning inwards.

Zac Goldsmith tonight has announced that he is going to “do a David Davis” and stand down to force a by-election in his own constituency on the airport issue. The government must decide whether its best option is to oppose him and risk the Lib Dems coming through the middle to win Richmond or to stand aside, as David Cameron decided was wise when David Davis forced a by-election. The danger then is that the pro-EU Lib Dems turn this into even more of a referendum on Europe than it would be anyway. Richmond voted 72 per cent for Remain in the referendum. Zac Goldsmith backed Leave.

In the Commons, in answer to questions from his own side, Chris Grayling insisted that there was no extra government money whatsoever going into the Heathrow project. The Transport Department argues that all the spending on additional M4 and rail improvements, tallied at £5bn in many estimates in the past, is actually the sort of stuff government would be doing anyway. In the consultation period after the National Policy Statement is published and the Transport Select Committee inquiry, those sort of numbers will be looked at very carefully.

There has only been one other major runway built in the UK in the age of the jet airliner, the second runway built at Manchester airport between 1997 to 2001. There were tunnels dug in the path of the diggers, campaigners chained themselves in tiny underground cells.

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