For historical reasons, people tend to talk about trouble-making Tory backbenchers in terms of the EU. To do so is out of date – backbench MPs are now more independent-minded across the board, and the European issue is just one of the reasons people might find to rebel.

An example of that can be seen today in Zac Goldsmith’s battle against a u-turn on Heathrow expansion.

Agree with him or not on the matter in question, it’s undoubtedly a principled stand, and given a by-election may be involved it could come at a cost. (More cash-strapped MPs would note that their Richmond colleague is more able than most to bear the cost of fighting – and possibly losing – such a by-election, but that’s by the by.)

The case he makes is based on two points:

  • It is immoral to break manifesto pledges. As I mentioned this morning, the promise not to expand Heathrow was made explicitly in order to win votes in a cluster of West London seats, including Richmond where Zac Goldsmith represents. Goldsmith cites it as a point of honour that he stood on that manifesto and will not abandon it even if his party moves its position.
  • The impact of a larger Heathrow on the local environment would be unacceptably damaging. The concerns he cites are well-recounted, and no doubt widespread among his constituents, about aircraft noise and excess road traffic from increased passenger numbers.

It’s interesting to note he has largely steered clear of the national or global environmental argument which used to be his mainstay – I suspect he realises the green case against flying which he might once have made is far less appealing to the public or to his colleagues.

A few days ago, Goldsmith reiterated his pledge to trigger a by-election should the Conservative Party change its position on Heathrow. The strength of his feeling on the question is clear from the strong terms he uses not just to discuss the policy but to criticise those he blames for expansion creeping back onto the table.

Here he is on Newsnight:

“This review…was always supposed to be an independent, arms-length review, and it seems very clear now that it’s nothing of the sort. It looks very much like George Osborne in particular has been knocking it about in the last few days so that what finally emerges on Tuesday will…enable the Government to maintain that ambiguity – cynically, I believe – until after the election…”

“…This is about enabling, I think, all three party leaders to defer any kind of decision making until after the election because none of them, frankly, have the courage to front up to voters before the election when it really matters.”

Here he is on Twitter in recent days:

The Richmond MP is not alone on the Tory benches in opposing Heathrow, but he is far more outspoken – and far more personal in his criticism – than any of his colleagues.

For any Whips watching, it doesn’t seem to me that he is making hollow threats about triggering a by-election. Asked on the Daily Politics if he would be prepared to stand as an Independent, he replied straight way: “Absolutely”.

In every interview, Goldsmith has been careful to reiterate that he hopes it won’t come to that – but it now seems far more likely the Parliamentary Conservative Party could lose an MP over the issue of airports than over Europe. That’s a measure of how the character of MPs – and the power relationship between them and the leadership – has changed.

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