Airport expansion in the spotlight

Once more the long-awaited decision over which London airport will see an expansion has been delayed; this time, until the end of October. The decision, which has been made by a Cabinet sub-committee, will then be put to a vote in Parliament by late 2017, or even as late as early 2018.

However, there have been the strongest indications yet that Heathrow will be the site of this expansion, with a third runway likely to be chosen over an extension of the two that are currently in place. Theresa May’s decision to relax Cabinet Collective Responsibility over the final choice has led those in the media to declare Heathrow the victor in this long running saga due to the number of prominent opponents to the third runway.

The expected break from usual Parliamentary procedure comes in the face of the strong rebuke May is likely to face from her own party. Boris Johnson, in his time as the Mayor of London, once said he was prepared to lie down “in front of the bulldozers” if the plans were approved and he is far from the only opponent May will face from within the Cabinet, let alone the party.

Education Secretary Justine Greening is another critic of the plan due to the perceived negative effects it is likely to have on her Putney, Roehampton and Southfields constituency. In 2008, May herself commented that she was concerned that if Heathrow expansion went ahead the quality of life for her constituents in Maidenhead would “deteriorate significantly”. Zac Goldsmith MP is likely to trigger a by-election in response to the approval of Heathrow’s expansion; a move that will see him re-run as an independent in a seat where the Conservatives have a large majority that they could see disappear.

May has faced further criticism as the sub-committee she appointed to finally conclude this long-running saga had no members that represent a London constituency and, therefore, the decision did not consider the needs of those most likely to be affected. May countered this stance by reaffirming her belief that this was a matter of national infrastructure and the needs of the country must take precedent over regional concerns.

All this coming in the wake of widespread infighting between the Conservatives over Brexit will not help to heal those wounds. May, however, can rest easy in the knowledge that both Labour and the SNP support the expansion of Heathrow and so the decision is likely to be granted safe passage through Parliament, although the SNP may be forced to sit on the side-lines as this could be a vote that falls under the relatively new ‘English Vote for English Laws’ system. It remains to be seen whether May will grant Conservative MPs a free vote .

This represents another in a long series of moves away from Cameron’s governance and his notorious “no ifs, no buts” approach to the third runway at Heathrow. It does at least fit with what former chancellor George Osborne has always maintained; Heathrow must be expanded before thoughts turn to Gatwick.

The battle over airport expansion seems to finally be over but the consequences of the decision will be long-standing. The Conservatives could lose even more ground to Labour in London, a region already considered a stronghold. And the probable reappearance of Conservative disharmony is only going to add to concerns, already raised by disagreements on the approach to Brexit and over grammar schools, that the Tories risk being pulled apart by infighting at a time when that appeared to be the sole reserve of UKIP and Labour.