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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Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.