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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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