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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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.