Had last year’s election gone to plan, Theresa May passing a flagship domestic measure with a Commons majority of 296 might not have been all that newsworthy. But we all know how that one ended, and last night’s vote on Heathrow expansion – which saw a third runway approved by a thumping majority – is the closest she’s ever going to get to knowing how it might have felt.
Plans for the £14bn new runway won the backing of 415 MPs, including 119 from Labour, who took advantage of their free vote – the reasoning for which is explained by Stephen here – and voted the opposite way to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. They included several members of the shadow cabinet: Angela Rayner, Jon Ashworth and Ian Lavery were among those who uncharacteristically walked through the same division lobby as the government. The SNP abstained and 119 MPs voted against expansion, with eight Tories defying the whip to do so.
Boris Johnson, of course, was not among them. The Foreign Secretary has driven a bulldozer through what was left of his credibility and was roundly mocked by his colleagues for missing yesterday’s vote for a definitely necessary trip to Kabul. He is nonetheless defiant and has restated his view that a third runway won’t happen.
Looking at last night’s numbers in isolation, one might write that off as typical Johnsonian braggadocio. But while the top lines of most of this morning’s reports are talking in detail about extra capacity and new flightpaths, further down is the eminently sensible justification for the Foreign Secretary’s nonchalance. No matter how many MPs back the plans, there are powerful interests outside parliament who can delay and delay them.
Sadiq Khan, Greenpeace and four London councils, two of them Tory-run, are to seek a judicial review of the decision, which could delay the point at which work actually starts by as much as two years. Both Khan and his Tory rival in 2020 will oppose it. British Airways chief Willie Walsh predicts the work will cost much more and take much longer than anyone is admitting. Brexit looms on the horizon. Have MPs really set an unstoppable juggernaut in train? With these legal, political and financial hurdles, it doesn’t seem that way.
The most striking thing about last night’s debate was how closely it resembled those held under Gordon Brown’s premiership: the arguments, and, indeed, the people making them were largely the same. John McDonnell took a trip down memory runway and spoke from the backbenches, seemingly angry enough to have another go at grabbing the mace.
It’s safe to bet on the outcome also being the same: an interminable delay. Brexit aside, this vote might end up being the most significant domestic measure passed by May’s government. The risk now is that, like Brexit, its implementation isn’t finished by the next election and a new government rips it up. David Cameron did it to Gordon Brown’s third runway. Could Corbyn do it to May’s?