I noticed a brief quip on one of Westminster’s political blogs last week. ‘Zac Goldsmith looking very miserable.’ He’s probably got over the loss of the London mayoral election by now so something else had to be up.
Now we know the reason for his long face. The chances of Heathrow being chosen for London’s long-awaited new runway have just got far stronger. Goldsmith has made it clear that he would resign from his Richmond constituency - from where you can virtually reach up and grab the tyres of the hundreds of screaming aircraft coming in to land - if a third runway is added to London’s principal airport.
The FT is reporting that after a careful tallying of the numbers by the Tory party Chairman and ex-Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin, the PM has sufficient backing in parliament to push through the new runway at Heathrow. Providing she wants to, that is. The paper adds, helpfully, that as is usual she is keeping her cards very close to her chest and is said to be ’like a sphinx on this.’ Members of her own constituency and that of the Chancellor Philip Hammond would be rewarded with even more sleepless nights if Heathrow gets the green light, although nobody could accuse either of them of nimbyism.
However the advantage of a free vote of conscience, free of whipping, would be that nobody had to resign.The crucial piece of data which was researched by Heathrow itself suggests that 67% of MPs would support Heathrow if it came down to a vote in the House of Commons. There are plenty of anti-Corbyn Labour MPs who dominate committee positions who back Heathrow. Gavin Shuker, the Luton South MP who chairs the transport committee, said he was deeply frustrated by Mr Corbyn’s failure to set out Labour’s position. Corbyn came out tepidly for Gatwick last year but wanted to return to the issue of regional hubs, as well.
Those opposed to the £17 billion Heathrow scheme are many, varied and yield no little power. Boris Johnson - now foreign secretary - has stated he’d prostrate himself under a bulldozer if it went ahead. The London mayor Sadiq Khan is against, as is Justine Greening, the education secretary. The legal hurdles to leap would also be substantial - if you add another 250,000 flights a year with all the extra road traffic the result would break every piece of anti-pollution legislation going, EU-created or otherwise.
However, the prospect of Brexit has brought the runway issue into even sharper focus. If we are now to make greater efforts to reach out to and trade with the wider world beyond Europe, we have to have the airport capacity to travel there. Heathrow already claims that getting on for a third of our non-European exports take to the air from its twin runways. A decision must be made now: even if it’s Heathrow the new runway would not be operational until 2029 at the earliest because it’s such a complex piece of engineering and requires compulsory purchase of so many houses.
The Heathrow problem has been left to fester for far too long - four decades. Everyone accepts it was built in the wrong place, to the West of a huge metropolis where the prevailing winds come mostly from the West. But it’s too late to do anything about that. Heathrow can deal with an absolute maximum of 480,000 flights each year and has been operating more than 470,000 for the last ten years. The fact that Heathrow has more direct flights to Hong Kong than to all the other Chinese cities put together shows how bad the problem has become. We are already losing vast amounts of business to European rivals because we cannot get Brits out to the right places where the action is.
If a free vote of MPs is a real possibility then we are headed for a lobbying frenzy over the next month. Gatwick - which was given a pretty clear thumbs down by Howard Davies in his 2015 report - responded by doubling down on its PR and refusing to be beaten. This is now likely to ratcheted up still further.
Neither have those outside London given up. What about beefing up airport capacity in the Midlands and the North? If anyone is serious about the Northern Powerhouse this is the opportunity to seriously turn the turbines North of Watford. Twenty-nine business leaders from the West Midlands wrote to the PM last week cajoling her to stop Heathrow in its tracks prevent it ‘re-forging its monopoly’ and go for ‘a truly competitive network of regional airports which can act as drivers for local growth.’ (It’s a crazy situation that more of the UK’s regional airports already link to Amsterdam than they do to Heathrow.)
There is even talk about allowing both Heathrow and Gatwick to jointly expand, the so-called ‘combi-deal.’ It all looks very messy indeed.
David Cameron was unable to show sufficient leadership to make a decision about the runway. He kicked it into the grass verge and then took off himself. It looks as if under the imperious Theresa May we may finally be reaching a reckoning in about a month. But it won’t be her single thumb turned up or down that seals the deal, but the 650 digits from all sides of the House.
Image credit: Phillip Capper/Wikipedia