Will the Davies aviation commission be nobbled?

The Lib Dems are worried that the Tories are trying to skew the report in favour of a third runway.

The government’s policy on expanding airport capacity is officially to have no policy this side of an election. An independent commission will be set up, chaired by Howard Davies.

It will deliver an interim report by the end of 2013 and a final verdict by the summer of 2015. That conveniently allows all parties to promise in their manifestos to implement the recommendations of the Davies Commission, thereby avoiding the need to say anything specific about preferences for or against a third runway at Heathrow. That, after all, is what the whole debate is really about and a choice that divides Labour and Tory ranks all the way up to cabinet/shadow cabinet level. (Around Westminster many comparisons are being drawn with the tacit pre-election agreement to await publication of the Browne review into higher education funding that allowed Labour and Tories to avoid arguing over tuition fees in the campaign. That left the field open to the Lib Dems to vigorously oppose higher fees. Then, of course, they found themselves running the department that implemented a variation of Browne’s report. Oops.)

Now it is again only the Lib Dems who are united on the third runway question: they utterly hate the idea, on environmental grounds and because noisy jumbos annoy voters in blue-yellow battle ground seats south west of the capital.

At the moment, that tension in the coalition is expressed in the vagueness of the government’s stated position, as set out by new Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin in parliament last week.

“The Government believes that maintaining the UK’s status as a leading global aviation hub is fundamental to our long term international competitiveness. But the Government is also mindful of the need to take full account of the social, environmental and other impacts of any expansion in airport capacity.” In other words, “we are very much in favour of more runways except when political circumstances force us to be against them.”

I understand that a battle is brewing in government over the terms of reference for the Davies commission, likely to bleed across into arguments over who sits on it. The Lib Dems are worried that the Tories are trying to skew the whole thing with a prejudice in favour of Heathrow. Much hinges on how the fundamental question before the commission is phrased.

You could ask something broad and open-ended - “what is the best long-term aviation strategy for Britain?” That would put all sorts of options on the table and leave room for a discussion of the environmental considerations of building new runways in various places. Or you could ask something along the lines of “given the urgent need for new capacity and the impacts on growth of having current airports groaning under the strain of over-use, what is the best option available?” In which case the answer is far more likely to be: a third runway at Heathrow. The plans are there in the drawer, drafted by the last Labour government and generally supported by big business.

At the moment, the outline for what the Commission is supposed to do is as follows:

- examine the scale and timing of any requirement for additional capacity to maintain the UK’s position as Europe’s most important aviation hub; and

- identify and evaluate how any need for additional capacity should be met in the short, medium and long term.

All fairly neutral. But rule one of setting up independent commissions in government is to make sure you know the answer you want to the question before you ask it. Gordon Brown was the master of this technique and George Osborne is not averse to plundering the old Brown playbook for political tactics. It is Osborne whom some Lib Dems suspect of trying to nobble the commission with loaded terms of reference. That, of course, might just be a reflection of how depleted levels of trust on pretty much anything have fallen in the coalition.

A protest sign is displayed in an area that would be demolished for a third runway near Heathrow airport. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Mister Lizard is not at home to bailiffs – he is eating salmon pâté by the river

Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”?

Summer’s nearly over. I look at the angle of the sunlight as it strikes the back terrace of the Hovel. I have been here long enough to use the terrace as a gnomon marking the passage of the year. I need, like the protagonists of Withnail and I, to go to the countryside to rejuvenate.

Last week when the Perseids were meant to be in full flow I asked frantically on a social medium for people to chum me along on a midnight walk on Hampstead Heath. In the end my new friends A— and her husband, C—, together with his new friend (whose initial I have forgotten, but he is Australian, if that helps), stepped up to the plate and after a couple at the Flask we went on a wide-ranging tour, which was a bust as far as seeing meteors – or my favourite tree – went, but was still hugely enjoyable. At about 2 am they packed me into an Uber and I went home happy, but I still felt as if I could do with more countryside.

The next few days made me even more anxious to get out of London. There are ominous signs that some serious roadworks are going to be taking place outside my bedroom window any day now. A bailiff came and rang the doorbell and I didn’t have the heart, or the nerve, to say that Nicholas Lezard was not at home at the moment and, is, in fact, on a walking tour of Patagonia now I come to think of it, due back some time next year. I just took the piece of paper into my hands as if it were a chicken come home to roost.

The previous day, presumably the same bailiff had come round and asked if Mr Lizard was in, and my housemate gallantly – and quite truthfully – said “no”. (Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”? Maybe it’s because they haven’t ever been.) In addition, as I said last week, the cleaning lady is on holiday and the Hovel is starting to look distinctly seedy.

So, then I get a call from a person who once featured quite prominently in this column, some time ago. This person is bored and wants me to go to his or her town and alleviate his or her boredom. This person and I parted company in circumstances that were far from ideal some time ago, and only recently have diplomatic relations been resumed.

It is too late, I say, for me to get on the train now; but when I have reviewed the book I am meant to be reviewing, I will hop on the train tomorrow around noon. And so I do, despite some monkey business from the departures board at King’s Cross, which tells passengers the 12:44 has been cancelled, then hasn’t been, then has, then hasn’t after all, while the 12:14 has slipped away like a thief in the night without telling anyone it was doing so.

I wonder if my return to the town of ——— is wise. As a dog returneth to its vomit, so doth a fool return to his folly. And the burnt hand fears the fire. Look, I say to myself, all we’re doing is going to have a picnic by the river. As we buy our supplies, the stallholder at the market asks if I am my companion’s husband. “No, he’s my picnic buddy,” he or she replies. “Never heard it called that before,” says the stallholder.

And the day passes perfectly pleasantly. We have two bottles of wine, cheese and smoked salmon pâté with crusty bread. People in punts drift past us, with varying degrees of competence. I remember it is A-level results day and call the eldest boy to ask how he’s done. He’s done well enough, it turns out, to get a place at university, though he feels obliged to point out that his results came in exactly a year ago. This is the kind of thing that happens when the number of children you have exceeds your mental bandwidth.

Later on, a porter from the college behind which we are picnicking asks me if I am a member, or an alumni. “Alumnus,” I correct him gently, hoping that this should establish my credentials. He asks for my name, and he radios the porters’ lodge to check my veracity. For some reason it takes him several goes to get my name right.

One of these goes is “Lizard”. We offer him some cheese, but he refuses, on the grounds that he has just had a banana and a cup of tea. I could live in a guest room here, I reflect, at not much higher rent than one pays in London. And the beauty of it is that the police, and presumably bailiffs, have to ask permission to go through the gates. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser