An airport U-turn could cost the coalition

Green activists and Middle England would unite against a new runway at any airport.

"The road to economic recovery isn't a road - it's a flight path." That's the message currently plastered all over the London underground, courtesy of Heathrow owners BAA.

The company's new campaign to reopen the third runway debate is a self-serving effort to play on people's economic anxieties at a time of fear, that much is obvious. But more than that, it's a con - both politically unrealistic and, more importantly, economically incoherent.

After all, even if David Cameron and Nick Clegg performed the mother of all U-turns and reneged on their totemic commitment not to pave over west London, there wouldn't be planes taking off from a new runway for at least a decade. And so it seems that BAA and its supporters have staked out territory for themselves as the most pessimistic of sages when it comes to when this country will bounce back from its economic malaise. They're putting the date of recovery at some point in the 2020s.

Despite their breathless and exaggerated claims about the supposed economic need for expansion at Heathrow, even the former Chief Executive of British Airways, Bob Ayling, has written (£), "A third runway at Heathrow is against Britain's economic interests." Equally, a report from the respected economic consultancy CE Delft looked at the business case BAA made for the runway and found it wanting. So did the Economist magazine, which opposed the plan for the same hardheaded economic reasons.

Even Cameron, before the election, accused Gordon Brown of "faking" the economic case for the runway. He also said, "What business needs to recognise is that the third runway is just not going to happen... There is such a coalition of forces against it. There's such an environmental case against."

Indeed, the arguments over Heathrow expansion remain fundamentally unchanged. As recently as last year, the global property consultants Cushman & Wakefield found that "London is still ranked -- by some distance from its closest competitors -- as the leading city in which to do business" and also concluded it has the best international transport links of any city in the world. And as Chris Goodall points out, BAA are not dealing with the uncomfortable fact that flying for business purposes is down about 25 per cent since the turn of the century. UK residents made 8.9 million business trips abroad by air in 2000 and 6.6m in 2010. Similarly, total passenger numbers in the UK are down over 10 per cent since 2007.

Never mind, it seems, here we go again.

Were "premier league" sums - or visits to his Number Ten Flat - behind the Prime Minister's apparent change of heart? We will likely never know. But according to the front pages of Sunday's Independent and Observer, the cross-party consensus of opposition to Heathrow expansion is breaking down because senior Conservatives led by Cameron and George Osborne are apparently looking to reopen the third runway debate.

Never mind that five major airports already serve London. Or that there are already more flights from Heathrow to China than there are from Paris Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt combined. The aviation industry lobbyists want more, more, more. As Labour's former aviation minister Chris Mullin wrote:

There is a long history of undertakings being given in return for controversial airport expansions which are either quietly forgotten or cynically abandoned once they becoming inconvenient. During my 18 undistinguished months as a minister whose responsibilities included aviation I learned two things. First, that the demands of the aviation industry are insatiable. Second, that successive governments have usually given way to them. Although nowadays the industry pays lip service to the notion of sustainability, its demands are essentially unchanged. It wants more of everything - airports, runways, terminals.

Any attempt to U-turn on the Heathrow runway will face a fierce political backlash. Within 24 hours of the briefings in the Sunday newspapers, London Mayor Boris Johnson - seeking votes in west London where the runway proposals are politically toxic - said, "It will not be built so long as I am Mayor of London." Richmond MP, Zac Goldsmith, said he'd resign and trigger a by-election if David Cameron reneged on his promise. Similarly, it strikes me it would be impossible for rising star Transport Secretary Justine Greening to remain in post given she is most known for her leading role in fighting the runway plans. Certainly her constituents under the flight path would never forgive such a betrayal. Finally, Nick Clegg knows an about-face on this issue would be as totemic as his tuition fees U-turn. He tied himself to the movement against the runway - even planting a protest tree on the land that would be required to build it - and a change in his position on this would be deeply unpopular with his party's rank and file.

Cameron and Osborne too must surely know how damaged their modernisation project would be if they cave in to BAA's lobbyists on this. Today Osborne's office has told the FT there's "no softening on the question of Heathrow" - something reiterated too by Greening's spokesperson. So for now at least, the third runway has not come back from the dead - and as Paul Goodman has commented - it remains unlikely to do so.

But whatever happens on Heathrow, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have already made clear they do want new runway capacity in the South East. That suggests they do plan to U-turn on their coalition agreement commitment not to approve new runways at Gatwick, Stansted or Heathrow. A Lib Dem source signalled to the Telegraph that whilst they're opposed to a new runway at Heathrow, they too are open to expansion somewhere else.

Since aviation remains the fastest growing cause of climate change, and millions of people living under flight paths would be blighted by noise and air pollution, we could yet see seasoned environmentalists once again arm-in-arm with Middle England rising up to stop the aviation juggernaut from destroying the places people love and undermining our efforts to curb global warming.

If this happens, the Chancellor will have created a political nightmare because of his starry-eyed devotion to corporate lobbyists. Sound familiar?

Joss Garman is a senior campaigner at Greenpeace UK. He previously co-founded the Plane Stupid direct action campaign against airport expansion. Follow him on Twitter: @jossgarman

A British Airways aircraft taxis past other parked British Airways aircraft at Terminal 5 of Photograph: Getty Images.

Joss Garman is associate fellow on climate change and energy at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.