We’re expecting a decision tomorrow. After decades of wrangling and reverses, Chris Grayling confirmed yesterday that the Cabinet sub-committee, and therefore the Government, will finally be making its mind up on Tuesday.
It’s almost certain to go in favour of Heathrow.Canny campaigning by the airport has put them in a commanding position, and crucially their strategy of signing up MPs across both main parties and in regions beyond the South East means they are able to offer the Government a decent chance of winning a vote.
Campaigning is still underway. Howard Davies, whose Commission investigated the question as part of Cameron’s endless kicking of the issue into the long grass, writes in today’s Telegraph that “The arguments for making a decision now, and for Heathrow, have strengthened in recent months.” Davies argues that post-referendum turbulence makes it all the more important that the Government should seize a chance to demonstrate a commitment to economic growth. A further sign that Heathrow is in a strong position is the news that Gatwick is making a last-ditch bid to warn of the risks and costs of their competitor’s plan.
There’s still a chance of a surprise. Given the delays in approving expansion at either airport, there has been a small but growing chorus urging the Government to expand both. This, it is argued, would make up ground lost in the years of dithering. It would certainly be a headline-grabbing move by the Prime Minister if it was to happen, offering an opportunity to deliver an unashamedly pro-growth message beyond all expectations. It’s very much an outside chance, but it isn’t hard to imagine her being tempted.
Even after a decision, consultations and votes lie ahead. Various recent reports suggested the Prime Minister had chosen to delay the final approval of the decision for an extra year, but Grayling was a pains to point out yesterday that this was simply a legally-required consultation period. Nonetheless, there is already pressure for that time to be cut down in order to allow work to commence as soon as possible. There will also have to be a parliamentary vote – but ministers seem quietly confident that they would have enough Labour support to win, aided by the fact that McDonnell’s opposition may spur some moderates to back the Government.
There will be muted criticism from inside the Cabinet. Aware that her Foreign and Education secretaries are uncomfortable with Heathrow expansion and have pledged to their constituents that they will oppose it, May has offered a partial and temporary lifting of collective responsibility. Cabinet ministers who dislike the eventual decision will be free to say so for a limited time, but they will not be allowed to do so from this dispatch box (which will invite some awkward questions in the Commons) nor will they be allowed to “actively campaign”. In effect, it’s a Prime Ministerial fig leaf to allow her colleagues to just about squeeze out of a tricky situation.
Zac Goldsmith’s criticism will not be muted. While Goldsmith is reported to regret his pledge to force a by-election if Heathrow gets the green light, he intends to stick to his word. Pity the official Conservative candidate forced to fight a Richmond Park by-election on a pro-Heathrow platform – but also don’t assume Goldsmith will automatically be re-elected in that circumstance. While he enjoyed a hefty 23,000-vote majority in 2015, it’s not impossible that a split in the vote between him and the official Tory might just allow the Lib Dems to be competitive in the seat if they successfully hammer the line that Zac voted Leave.
Inevitable airport expansion further highlights the pointlessness of the emissions target. The very fact that the debate is about which airport should be expanded rather than whether to expand any airport at all is a sign of the continued collapse of the authority of the Climate Change Act 2008. Ridiculously, that Act committed the UK to a legally-binding 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 – a commitment made absurd by the fact that almost none of today’s politicians will be in Parliament to bear any consequences or receive any congratulations should the target be met. There was always the question of whether such a long-term aim had any political meaning given that lack of accountability; this decision suggests the answer is that it doesn’t. The Government will no doubt argue that plane efficiency is constantly improving and that big carbon savings are being made in other parts of the economy to justify the decision – both are true, but the charade underlines the fact that it was a fantasy to imagine that the 2008 Act would somehow force all successor Governments to follow the line of the green purists at the expense of growth.