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Cameron and Osborne execute a V-turn on their opposition to a third Heathrow runway

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2012-03-25 at 08.34.08Shadow Ministers tend to hammer away like Nibelung dwarves at their labour, glancing up now and again - with emotions varying from admiration to bafflement - at the other products rolling out of the great policy workshop, lorded over by the distant gods of the party leadership.

Since my responsibility as a Shadow Minister during the last Parliament was for community cohesion, I assumed when peering up in 2008 at the gleaming new Conservative policy on a third Heathrow runway - opposition to it and support for a new high speed rail system instead - that the announcement was a load of preposterous old greenwash designed to haul in liberal votes for the coming election, and would thus be unceremoniously junked within a couple of months of David Cameron holding office.

I was wrong.  It has taken almost a couple of years.

The Observer and Independent on Sunday lead this morning with reports that Cameron and George Osborne have finally prostrated to the inevitable, and are working out ways of getting more airport capacity into the south-east fast.  The Observer puts it this way: 

"According to senior sources, both David Cameron and George Osborne have been convinced of the need to act – and re-examine long-term policy on Heathrow – after being lobbied by overseas leaders and business figures who warn that trade will move elsewhere in the EU unless the airport is expanded.  A third option, to build an entirely new airport in the Thames estuary, has been relegated because it would take too long to build."

Screen shot 2012-03-25 at 08.34.29Both papers say that a radical new option is being considered. The Independent writes -

"Secret plans being drawn up in Whitehall include the possibility of transforming the runway at RAF Northolt, a tiny airport six miles from Heathrow used by the Queen and military top brass, into an effective third runway, which would not involve the destruction of neighbouring villages. An option to expand Gatwick airport would be less controversial but undermines the case for a global hub, which would be better positioned in west London, senior figures say."

The politics of all this breaks down as follows. 

  • HS2.  Part of the original case for high speed rail two was that the scheme is a greener alternative to a third Heathrow runway.  So if one were to be built, what would happen to the case for HS2?  Cameron's argument has shifted since his original third runway announcement: stress is now placed on the role HS2 would allegedly play in reviving the north - and the importance of big infrastructure projects during times of precarious growth.  But were the Government to decide for Heathrow this would be a blow to the case for HS2 (such as there is: I am doubtful about it.)
  • Boris I had presumed that the Mayor is desparate not to antagonise the voters of west London during the run-up to May's election, and that Cameron and Osborne are desparate to see him win.  I had therefore also assumed that the Boris Island scheme would be hinted and nodded at as a favoured option by Downing Street and the Treasury until, say, May 4.  However, Boris said yesterday that "Contrary to popular belief I am not the slightest bit wedded to some remote archipelago in the Thames estuary" - which may indicate that his position on Heathrow has changed.
  • Justine Greening.  I grew up in East Sheen, directly underneath a flight path to Heathrow.  Greening's Putney constituency is the next one into London, and her constituents take the flights less kindly than I did as a child.  The Transport Secretary has made a big thing locally of campaigning against a third Heathrow runway (did anyone spot that before deciding to appoint her?), and were she to preside over building one would face a constituency reaction that would make the HS2 troubles of the Bucks Tory MPs look like a tea dance at a retirement home.  The Independent claims that she is furious about the policy shift.
  • The Liberal Democrats.  Greening's rage is apparently and unsurprisingly shared by Nick Clegg.  The Liberal Democrats are against airport expansion - is there no end to their mutton-headedness? - especially where voters are affected by it.  Such places include Twickenham, Vince Cable's constituency, just west of the Richmond Park constituency of which my beloved East Sheen is a part.  If the junior partner in the Coalition can wrestle the senior one to the mat over NHS reform, imagine what it will try to do over Heathrow.  Ed Davey and Paul Burstow, also Ministers, hold seats in the vicinity.
  • Tory MPs.  But before I scoff too loudly at the Liberal Democrats running after votes, let's remember that running after votes is part of what politics is about - and that Conservative MPs have been known to do too.  There are blue marginals in west London whose voters would share the Putney of more flights.  The MP for Richmond Park is Zac Goldsmith, who threatened yesterday to resign over the policy-change-of-heart.  He is both rich enough to afford to quit and principled enough (or fixated enough, according to one's point of view) actually to do so.
  • Ruislip.  The logic of all this is that plumping for a third Heathrow runway would carry political risks for the Government - quite apart from those of executing what would be seen not so much as a U but a V-turn (though Tim Yeo, who has presumably been sent out to trail the policy, claims in the Observer that it wouldn't be one, because of a new EU cap on emissions).  Hence, presumably, the brainwave concept of building a new runway at RAF Ruislip - near enough to Heathrow for Ministers to claim simultaneously that it both would and wouldn't be a new third runway.

So what will happen?  My best guess is as follows: Boris Island will be dismissed as too expensive, Heathrow as too risky and Ruislip as impracticable - the Observer reports claims that the runway  would have to realigned: more tellingly, perhaps, the marginal seat problem would remain.

The paper also quotes Cameron as saying that "Gatwick is emerging as a business airport for London under a new owner, competing with Heathrow. No construction work could start at Gatwick until 2019 but this would not stop officials drawing up plans to establish a framework."

The blue majorities in the Gatwick area tend to be larger than those in West London.  I suspect that Gatwick it will be.  Victoria Borwick has suggested a Heathrow-Gatwick rail link on this site.  I would be curious to see a list of the seats that it would run through.


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