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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.

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

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.