I’ve known Howard Davies for more than 10 years. In the world of public service his combination of brain-power, integrity and refusal to brown-nose to or be cowed by the mighty is much admired. After he came a cropper at the LSE, he could have gone off and made a shed load of money in private equity. But no. He teaches his course in Paris and gets it in the neck for writing runway reports for a pittance. He’s even taking over chairing the London Library where the scholars have to be woken up at closing time to kick them out.
So self-interest is not what motivates him. He chose the bed of nails of writing a report on London’s new runway because it interests him. He has eaten more dried up olives in airport business lounges than you’ve had Pret sandwiches. God knows why, after this, he has agreed to chair RBS, which will make the shitstorm over the runway look like a sweet spring shower over Ullswater. I don’t know why he does it. A sense of duty probably. And there’s also a bit of being convinced he’s the best man to do these tricky jobs well. He’s an unforgiving critic of weak-minded, wooly thinking. The Economist called him ‘entirely unencumbered by self doubt,’
People say he’s too cerebral, but I know before he put Heathrow forward as the first choice for a new London runway he will - unlike many McKinseyites - have been considerate of those who live under the Heathrow flightpath (me included) who regularly get woken by the first 747 lumbering in from the far east at 4.30 AM. One of his key recommendations is that night flying should be banned between 11.30 PM and 6 AM. This is sensible and fair and will not be popular with Heathrow itself.
He has courage. Which is markedly lacking in our political masters at the moment. Between them Cameron and maybe Osborne will do all they can to kick the runway decision into the long grass. This will be very greatly to the detriment of our national economic interest. The combination of Zac Goldsmith (who would rather travel by Gulfstream from Biggin Hill anyway) and Boris Johnson, with all his wilful eccentricities, should be faced down.
Already Number 10 is briefing that the report is ‘not definitive.’ It is. It could not be clearer in setting out what must be done. (And MT, which has expressed support for Gatwick, accepts his analysis.) Now the Government has to do the work of getting the concrete laid. This will mean resisting its natural urge to try to avoid unpopularity. This is the essence of leadership. Can you imagine Mrs T being swayed by the special pleading of a Justine Greening or Zac Goldsmith?
Politics may be the art of the possible, but government should not be dictated by the need to keep eccentric and wilful outliers in your own party in order. Already the Government is bullying the CBI to pipe down over the EU referendum debate.
A decision about London’s new runway is needed fast. As Davies asked on the radio this morning, ‘Is London willing to make the decisions it needs to to remain a global city?’ The stark evidence is now in front of those who can make it happen. They must make up their minds quickly. And if they do have have the moral or political courage to do so they should allow someone else to take on that vital responsibility.