Decades of dithering on the future of airport capacity in the South East looks set to continue, at least until the end of the year, as the Davies Commission exposes deep fissures in the Conservative Party and leaves the Government facing a significant rebellion.
Set up by the Government three years ago to provide an independent and clear decision (or as some cynics suggest to delay the issue of airport expansion until after the 2015 general election) the Davies Commission has found in favour of adding a third runway at Heathrow.
Yet, rather than swiftly support the “clear and unanimous” verdict delivered by Davies, and put shovel to dirt, the Government has stalled, saying it will review the evidence and make a decision on the in the Autumn.
It doesn’t take a genius to see why.
As Westminster woke to the news that Davies had backed Heathrow, several high profile MPs, among them the Mayor ofLondon Boris Johnson MP and potential future Mayor of London Zac Goldsmith, rallied indignantly to criticise the commission. Indeed, Goldsmith MP reiterated his threat to force a by-election on the issue, should the Government back Davies recommendation. There are rumours abound that as many as five Cabinet members could resign over the issue. Behind the scenes, Cabinet members Theresa May MP, Philip Hammond MP, Greg Hands MP and Justine Greening MP – all known supporters of the anti-Heathrow camp – are also likely to be voicing their opposition to the verdict.
The politics of this issue are now significantly more intense than before the election. The Government’s small majority lends disproportionate power to local vested interests, and with 11 Conservative MPs in South West London, it is all too easy to see how the working majority can disappear and national interest be subsumed by local ones.
With Downing Street warning that any ministers who refuse to accept the government’s position on airport capacity will have to resign, the internal row only looks set to intensify.
The Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has already begun to pave the way for David Cameron to perform a u-turn on his ‘no ifs, no buts, no third runway’ position on Heathrow. In his statement to the Commons earlier today the Transport Secretary insisted that the Prime Minister’s comments related specifically to a proposal put to him in 2009 which was not a “proper proposal”, while the Davies report is.
If delaying the decision on airport capacity beyond the general election was considered politically astute three years ago, clearly little consideration was given to impact it might have on the 2016 London Mayoral elections. The contest for London promises to ensure the issue remains an uncomfortable thorn in the Government’s side for a further year. With Gatwick still considering itself “very much still in the race”, the pressure on Number 10 to disregard Davies recommendation will be huge.
At stake in all of this is £147bn of economic growth and 70,000 new jobs by 2040.
Labour, of course, is keen to exploit this to make the Government look weak and indecisive. The Shadow Transport Secretary Michael Dugher MP announced today that Labour would be backing Heathrow expansion – and would help the Government secure any vote on the matter. Being dependent on a damaged Labour Party for success is not how this Government will want to be seen to do business.
The party of business, trade and economic growth, as the Tories position themselves, must necessarily be party of airports. British businesses have long backed Heathrow, arguing it was the only option that could deliver new routes into emerging markets such as South America.
Several business groups have voiced their approval of Davies’ decision, with the Institute of Director’s members preferring Heathrow and the City of London Corporation policy chairman Mark Boleat describing Heathrow as “by far the most important of London’s airports”. But with internal party politics looking likely to overtake the national interest, stagnation and not implementation is all we can expect.
Procrastination on this issue makes Britain look sluggish in the global race. As more markets open, connectivity is crucial and, as the saying goes, there has never been a prize for second place. Businesses in particular will have been dismayed at today’s indecision.
The only resolution is strong leadership. Now is Cameron’s time to step up.