by GK Strategy 1st July, 2015
3 min read

Hollow Headlines on Heathrow

The long-awaited report from the Airports Commission has delivered an unsurprising verdict: expanding Heathrow would be the best way for the UK to make maximum economic gains. This is unsurprising given it has been known by politicians for almost a decade. But the heady headlines are almost entirely meaningless.

Politics are what defines the UK’s approach to airport capacity, not economics. Downing Street – whoever is government – would dearly love to be able to implement the report’s recommendation. Labour attempted it in 2007-2009, only to be met with vehement opposition from both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, as well as local campaigners and loud-mouthed backbenchers.

It was during that period that David Cameron gave his famous pledge never to allow a third runway, which is being quoted relentlessly by environmental activists this morning: “The third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts.”

The problem for Cameron is that it’s also being quoted by people like Boris Johnson. Johnson is one of several people who represent an almost-impossible barrier to Heathrow expansion. Others include heavyweight Cabinet ministers with seats that would be heavily affected by increased air traffic, including Justine Greening, Philip Hammond, Theresa May and Greg Hands.

It is also worth considering the effect a Conservative commitment to a third runway at Heathrow would have on Zac Goldsmith’s candidacy for the London mayoral election in 2016. It would force him to trigger a by-election that would likely scupper his mayoral bid entirely. The Tories know he is their best shot at retaining power at City Hall.

Both Goldsmith and Johnson have already stated that expansion is “not going to happen”. Despite this, expansion at Heathrow is still possible, but would require all of David Cameron’s powers of persuasion, not to mention a substantial commitment of political capital. He and George Osborne must be itching to use their newly acquired majority to force the growth plan through.

But is Cameron sufficiently wedded to the idea to make it one of the major battles of his last term in power? It still feels as though the compromise solution of Gatwick – not conclusively rejected by the Airports Commission – is far more achievable.

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