A Stop Heathrow sign goes up in Sipton. Photo: Getty Images
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Will the government go to war over Heathrow?

The Davies Report into airport expansion has opted for a third runway at Heathrow - triggering a split at the top of the Tory party.

The Davies Commission into airport expansion has reccomended a third runway at Heathrow, putting the government on a collision course with some of its most senior members. George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is a strong supporter of the third runway, but Theresa May, the Home Secretary, Justine Greening, the Development Secretary,  Greg Hands, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond all have seats that are affected by expansion and are likely to strongly oppose expansion.

Greening, who was moved from the Transport brief in 2012 due to her opposition in Heathrow, is thought to be implacably opposed to a third runway, as is Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor and newly-installed MP for Ruislip & Uxbridge, and Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond and Johnson's likely successor as the Tory standard-bearer in London. Sadiq Khan, one of the Labour candidates for Mayor, is also opposed to Heathrow expansion, although his rivals, Gareth Thomas, David Lammy and Tessa Jowell all back the Davies report. 

Although superficially, the Liberal Democrat wipe-out clears the path for Heathrow expansion - that party is opposed to airport expansion at Heathrow and Gatwick - Conservative insiders believe that the problem has simply taken on a new form. "With them, it was 30 per cent environmentalism, 70 per cent opportunism," says one Conservative, suggesting that constituency pressure may have had more to do with Liberal opposition to Heathrow than green concerns. "Now it's our people who have [these seats]."

The second runway at Gatwick - which the commission has also not ruled out - may prove a more politically palatable option, despite the championing of Heathrow by Sir Howard Davies, the Commission chair. 

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

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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