Heathrow: Will it fly? The PM’s got through a rough patch, now for another…

The Prime Minister has got through the Brexit negotiation drama in the Commons by the skin of her teeth, but are there other rough rides ahead for the Government?

It would be fair to say that the Government had enough on its plate yesterday with a critical vote on the House of Lords’ amendment on Brexit negotiations. Now there is another crunch vote due, this time on Heathrow expansion, which may create further headaches. It is an issue of economic importance, especially against the backdrop of Brexit and Britain retaining its place in the world and, given the amount of time taken to get to this stage, it is also important in terms of demonstrating that big infrastructure projects can be agreed and get through the planning process.

Pundits predict this will be an ‘easy’ sell for the Government in Parliament, overcoming very strong views on the subject. But will it?

As the issue is so important, it is no surprise the Government is whipping the vote. However, there are Ministers with constituencies affected by the Heathrow flight path which means resignations are on the cards. Chelsea and Fulham MP and International Trade Minister, Greg Hands, has already jumped and others may feel they have to follow suit. Then there is Boris Johnson’s previous larger than life commentary on the subject, in which he stated he would lay down in front of bulldozers to block the scheme. It seems unlikely he will now resign over the issue which will no doubt create charges of U-turns and careerism and generally create headlines.

The headache for the Government is that the outcome of the vote seems less secure than previously, following an announcement from Labour that they’ll allow a free vote for their MPs. The SNP has previously supported expansion but have become more lukewarm in recent weeks citing environmental concerns. Does the possible combination of rebel Conservative MPs, free-voting Labour MPs and gadfly-like opposition from the SNP mean there is now a small possibility of defeat?

Of course, the Government is keen to stress that expansion at Europe’s busiest airport will boost the United Kingdom’s economy by £74 billion and retain its global position as a leader in aviation. Despite these apparently strong economic benefits, Labour has taken the politically assertive move of calling for a free vote in the House of Commons on this controversial expansion scheme. Resignations from the Government will embolden them.

The basis for Labour’s opposition is that it asserts the plans do not meet its four key tests. Namely, they are: –

  • That expansion minimises noise pollution and its impact on the environment;
  • A guarantee that it will deliver actual increased aviation capacity;
  • That the UK will be meeting its Co2 reduction commitments;
  • And that the benefits of a Third Runway would not be exclusively focused on London and the South East, and must therefore be broader in scope.

Much has been made today on air pollution in the media. Albeit focused on car-based pollution, this will still resonate as an issue, even if just in an adjacent fashion. Green lobbyists will not rest on this issue, protests are inevitable. This is a totem for the environmental left wing. And Tory MPs in London who have made considerable political noise about opposing the plans for their constituents, a la Zac Goldsmith and Justine Greening.

Conversely, the Government cites forecasts that aviation capacity in all of London’s five airports will be reached as soon as the mid-2030s.

And they assert with Brexit ticking away on the clock for the end of March next year, the UK needs to maintain a premier position as a long-haul destination hub in the midst of growing markets, predominantly currently outside of the European Union. Moreover, assuring international markets it is such a presence and will remain so.

There will be a headache for the Government, but a large majority of MPs have constituents far away from Heathrow and the impact would only be on predominantly Conservative seats in London and the South East. Therefore, rhetoric from Labour is predictably strong on the issue. Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald has said: “Heathrow expansion is incompatible with our environmental and climate change obligations and cannot be achieved without unacceptable impacts on local residents.”

The trouble for Labour will be harmonising their position with the Trade Unions (who back the Heathrow plans). This is a known internal stakeholder management issue for the Labour, which they are skilled at. The Liberal Democrats and the Greens are keen to flex their environmental muscles; for them, this is an opportunity not to be missed. Given their size in politics generally, they are unlikely to have any significant impact.

The tricky spot for the Labour Party will stem from marrying their commitment to “support vital investment in our county’s transport infrastructure” with their view that the proposal fails to provide “real value for money and sustainability”.

With an embattled Prime Minister keen to divert attention away from Brexit and onto economic positives, Heathrow will get a bumpy ride through Parliament, despite what the pundits say. More resignations from Conservatives, like Greg Hands, certainly won’t assist that passage…

And even if it does get through Parliament, the possibility of further court action remains a risk.

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