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".

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."

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.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.