Greg Hands’ Heathrow resignation leaves Boris Johnson in a tight spot

Avoiding a vote on expanding the airport on the grounds he will be travelling looks like a cop-out in the wake of the international trade minister quitting. 

NS

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The government has been hit by its second resignation in two weeks. Greg Hands, the international trade minister, is quitting in order to vote against the expansion of Heathrow. The plans come before the Commons on Monday and, unlike Labour, the Tories are whipping their MPs to support it. 

The departure and its timing raises several questions, the most interesting of which aren’t actually about him. Nominations have just opened for the Conservative candidacy for the 2020 London Mayoral election, and Hands, who was until earlier this year the minister for the capital, might fancy a tilt. Martyring himself over Heathrow can only boost his chances of winning – his is the resignation of greatest magnitude over the issue yet. 

But could it presage a higher-profile government departure? Announcing his resignation on Twitter, Hands pointedly included election leaflets in which he pledged to oppose any expansion in parliament, “like Boris Johnson”. The Foreign Secretary’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency is also under Heathrow’s flightpath. As Hands helpfully reminds us, he has pledged to vote against a third runway and has made much of his opposition (recall his promise to “lie down in front of the bulldozers”). 

It was already impossible for Johnson to square the circle of collective responsibility with his opposition to expansion in the event of a whipped vote. He will avoid the inevitable consequence on the grounds that he will be "travelling", as his ministerial brief gives him a degree of cover to do.

But Hands – who as an international trade minister might also have scheduled a foreign trip in order to have his cake and eat it – makes that creative scheduling look like a cop-out, and the Foreign Secretary like an evasive blowhard. Having ducked several chances to resign on Brexit, failing to follow Hands’ example could inflict further reputational damage. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.