Just over a fortnight ago, I wrote that "we will need to have a reckoning over whether the Conservative Party is in favour of letting ordinary Britons enjoy a holiday abroad, or not." Is the Conservative Party only against expansion at Heathrow, as Boris appeared to be, or against airport expansion in general, as Theresa Villiers appeared to be?
The water is even muddier today. We've had Theresa Villiers writing, on this website, that:
"And what about the Government’s promise to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050? Despite rushing out yet another empty promise to reduce emissions from planes by 2050, the Government have come up with no concrete plan to explain how a 46 per cent increase in flights will be reconciled with the international fight against catastrophic climate change."
Then, the Times reports - from yesterday's debate:
"The Tory attempt to embarrass Labour during the debate backfired when Ms Villiers said during the opening exchanges: “We don’t rule out South East expansion.” Later, she added: “Nor are we against flying.”
This is Ms Villiers’s most explicit statement so far that the Conservatives would be prepared to see expansion in some parts of the South East."
Apparently the favoured airports for expansion are Luton, London City and Southend. Emissions from a plane flying from Luton will have much the same impact on the climate as emissions from a flight from Heathrow. It isn't just that the Conservative Party is more divided than its opposition to Heathrow suggests but that Theresa Villiers herself appears to be unsure whether an increase in international flights is acceptable.
If the Conservatives' opposition is to expansion at Gatwick, Stansted or Heathrow then it appears almost calculated to prevent the UK having a hub airport. We'll have lots of airport capacity from small airports that will fly to hubs at Frankfurt or Paris, then we'll rely on them to access the rest of the world. That wouldn't be good for London's competitiveness or for ordinary Britons wanting to fly abroad conveniently and affordably. However, at the same time it won't prevent emissions rising.
While I am, once again, on this subject. There were a few rather misleading bits in Theresa Villiers' article yesterday.
"And no one has come up with any convincing evidence to back the “expand or die” theory which says that Heathrow will face a spiral of decline without massive expansion. By contrast, all the evidence points to the fact that millions of people will still want to fly to and from Heathrow, regardless of whether expansion occurs or not. Indeed the aviation industry lobby group Flying Matters stated in a recent briefing to MPs that “Heathrow remains the UK’s number one airport of choice”."
Note the really important word "UK's" in that sentence from Flying Matters. Heathrow's primary competition isn't other UK airports but major European hubs. It is losing routes to them right now and will continue to do so if it can't get new capacity. That will mean more transfers with all the inconvenience, cost and lost competitiveness that implies.
"[A] recent poll of small businesses by Continental Research found that 95 per cent believed that expanding Heathrow would make little or no difference to them".
Bear in mind that many small businesses are tiny enterprises like restaurants. The direct impact on each individual firm is likely to small, or 'little' to use that poll's terminology. The indirect impacts on small firms of medium sized or larger firms suffering or investing outside the UK and the combined direct harms to the multitude of small firms will be very far from 'little'.
"And it is wrong to say that business is universally in favour of a third runway. For example, London First’s Steering Group into Heathrow expansion is deeply divided on this."
I'm indebted to a comment from David Simpson that answers that point. Of course, business isn't universally in favour, or opposed, to anything. I'm not going to claim consensus. But it's hard to think of a policy that enjoys a broader base of support in the business community than Heathrow expansion.