Lib Dem members vote to defeat Nick Clegg’s airport expansion U-turn

Controversy crash-lands at the Lib Dem party conference, as airport expansion becomes this season’s broken pledge for the leadership.

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Could airport expansion be this year’s tuition fees debacle for the Lib Dem party leadership?

It certainly looks like another broken pledge, as Nick Clegg and other senior party members are U-turning on their pre-election manifesto promise to oppose any further airport expansion.

Here’s what the party’s pre-manifesto says:

We remain opposed to any expansion of Heathrow, Stansted or Gatwick and any new airport in the Thames Estuary, because of local issues of air and noise pollution. We will ensure no net increase in runways across the UK as a whole by prohibiting the opening of any new runways unless others are closed elsewhere.

However, Lib Dem ministers – as well as Clegg – supported an amendment tabled by two Lib Dem MPs – Stephen Gilbert and Lorely Burt – at the party's conference today that would allow Gatwick to be exempted from this pledge.

The Energy Secretary was one of them, telling the BBC’s Today programme this morning:

What we're saying is the environmental criteria we have always had may well be able to allow expansion elsewhere given technological change . . . It's not a U-turn on environmental criteria – that's the key point.

In spite of leading Lib Dems looking to change their previous position on airport expansion, party members voted against the plan at the conference earlier today. They comfortably defeated the leadership, preferring to stick to the current policy: “no net increase in runways across the UK as a whole”.

This is an embarrassing outcome for Clegg, as the party faithful – or unfaithful in this case – clearly feel this is one U-turn too far. Results like these are tough for the leadership, because their party conference decides Lib Dem policy. This could make future coalition negotiations tough, but doesn’t necessarily bind the party to including the policy in its manifesto.

Clegg almost suffered similar embarrassment last conference, when he clashed with some party activists on votes on coalition economic and tax policies, as well as narrowly winning a vote on renewing Trident.

BBC News quoted a member of the Green Liberal Democrat group this morning, saying the Lib Dems’ eco credentials are the party’s “unique selling point”, differentiating it from the other two main parties. He said his party is just as green as the Green party on environmental concerns. It's significant that Clegg U-turning on concerns like airport expansion, to adopt a less green approach, takes away from the traditional perception of the Lib Dems as a party with an environmental conscience. This debate isn't just a blow for the party leadership. Clegg's U-turn is a blow to the soul of a party already struggling to rediscover its true identity.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.