Today’s Heathrow vote reveals more about political tactics than plans for a third runway

Up to 100 Labour MPs could vote with the government, despite the plans failing four of the party’s tests.

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Today MPs get an increasingly rare treat: a set-piece vote that isn't on Brexit legislation. Plans to build a third runway at Heathrow are expected to be approved by the Commons this evening, but the journey there has been a bit more turbulent than either the government or Labour would have liked.

Conservative MPs have been whipped to back expansion, but the convenient absence of Boris Johnson means we won't get a box office resignation from the cabinet tonight. The Foreign Secretary is travelling abroad to a location his team won't disclose for “security reasons”. Job security, presumably. Lovers of minor personnel changes in the middle rung of government will have to make do with Greg Hands’ departure for a while yet.

Any Tory rebellion is expected to be relatively small: Hands, Zac Goldsmith, Justine Greening and a handful of others will likely vote against the plans, as could the SNP, who until yesterday were assumed to be nailed-on supporters of expansion. A mealy-mouthed briefing from the party to the BBC suggested the government hadn't done enough to outline the economic benefits of a third runway to Scotland but critics allege that the Nats, who are adopting an increasingly hostile stance to the UK government at Holyrood and Westminster, simply don't want to be seen voting with the Tories.

SNP opposition could have put the government in serious danger of a defeat, but won't. Why? Labour has given its MPs a free vote and up to 100 of them could vote with with the government and deliver a victory for the third runway, despite it officially failing the party's four tests on airport capacity, carbon emissions, noise pollution and ensuring the economic benefits are shared across the country. Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner is among those likely to go over the top, despite Corbyn's opposition.

The row appears to put the Labour leader at odds with Unite: in a move that will confuse those who believe Gerard Coyne's attack lines, he isn't doing exactly what Len McCluskey wants. The Unite boss has written to every Labour MP asking them to vote for expansion today. But there's a risk of overwriting the difference of opinion. It isn't a blazing new row. As Stephen wrote last week, that Labour has even allowed a free vote on an issue that according to its own policy is a terrible idea is a victory for the union. The leadership has enabled its MPs to deliver a big win for the union and the workers it represents in aviation while averting a messy internal fight.

It's telling, though, that discussion of this evening's vote has focussed almost entirely on political chicanery and not the whys and wherefores of exactly how Heathrow is going to be expanded, and when. Asked about Hands' resignation yesterday, Labour MP Andy Slaughter wistfully noted yesterday that he himself had quit the government over the third runway almost a decade ago. All today will do is open another protracted chapter in the 20-year story of how Heathrow probably won't get a third runway. It's thus hard to escape the conclusion that the only significance of this vote could be as a case study in the parliamentary tactics of Corbyn's Labour.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.