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Labour denies Heathrow third runway U-turn - but there has been a shift

Having threatened to resign from the last Labour government over the project, Miliband is now merely "sceptical".

A protest sign is displayed in the village of Sipson, which would be demolished should a third runway be built at Heathrow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.

Labour is denying that there has been any change in its stance on a third runway at Heathrow after the FT reported that Ed Miliband had "abandoned his implacable opposition". A party source told The Staggers: 

FT suggestion Labour changing position on Heathrow is wrong. Position unchanged. Ed sceptical. We await Davies [Airports Commission]. 

But while the party is some way from endorsing the project, which will be one of those shortlisted by the Airports Commission (chaired by Howard Davies) in its interim report next week, a shift has unmistakably taken place. 

When Miliband won the Labour leadership in 2010, having threatened to resign as Energy Secretary over the issue during the last government, he made it official party policy to oppose a third runway. As then shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle said in 2011: "The answer for the south-east is not going to be to fall back on the proposed third runway at Heathrow. The local environmental impact means that this is off the agenda." Yet now Miliband is merely said to be "sceptical". In the recent reshuffle, Eagle, a strong opponent of a third runway and a strong supporter of HS2, was replaced with Mary Creagh, who has adopted a neutral stance on the Davies Commission. She said recently: "No party can say now that it will implement its recommendations when we simply don't know what the costs of any proposals will be. Obviously the Conservatives and Lib Dems haven't made any such commitments."

This shift is, among other things, a victory for Ed Balls. We know that the shadow chancellor favours a third runway because he's told us. As I noted earlier this year, asked in the "quick fire" section of a Times interview whether he favoured a "third runway or HS2", he replied: "third runway". That Miliband is now willing to consider a third runway shows how the gap between them has narrowed since they were in government together.

As Damian McBride recalled in his memoir: "The first time I ever heard Balls say anything remotely negative about Miliband was at the end of 2008, when the latter effectively threatened to resign from the Cabinet if a decision was made to build a third runway at Heathrow.

"Balls was genuinely outraged that Miliband could ignore the need to expand airport capacity just for the sake of his reputation with the green lobby and his own political positioning."