Heathrow is a big test for David Cameron’s leadership

The election is done with, so now it is safe for the Airport Commission to report on options for expanding airport capacity in England’s South East. They have duly proposed that another runway be built at Heathrow airport.

Personally I was a bit surprised. I had expected the Commission to recommend expanding Gatwick. An article in the FT a while back led me to think that its Chair, Howard Davies, favoured the expansion of point to point services, which allow greater levels of competition, over the conventional arguments for the economies of hub airports, which favour big operators. But if he felt that way he was overwhelmed by conventional economic arguments that pointed to expanding the biggest airport, while skating lightly over the pollution and noise arguments that arise from this airport’s proximity to the main London conurbation.

I am emotionally very anti Heathrow airport. Living under its flightpath I find the noise of planes coming into land irksome, especially when they thunder over before 6am. I hate the way it ruins such beautiful places as Kew Gardens. I hate it as a passenger, as it is hard to get to by public transport or car, and when you arrive it is just too big. Every step in your journey before take-off or after touchdown takes longer than it should, and the whole enterprise is managed with the lack of imagination we expect from major corporate operators who know that you have no choice. Gatwick is a delight by comparison, especially since it was put under independent management. And I resent the history broken promises from the airport’s operators after each previous bid to expand. Which in turn undermines many of the promised safeguards proposed by the Commission. Heathrow’s lobbyists know how to dismantle such promises one at a time; their victory in this battle would give them immense sway.

But I have to admit that I’m not on top of the business arguments in favour of Heathrow’s expansion. And I have to question how much we can keep shooting ourselves in the foot, in conventional economic terms, while trying to maintain the tax base to support the level of public services and benefits as the population ages. Through gritted teeth I will admit that there may be case to be made for expanding this horrid airport.

But our Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his Chancellor George Osborne, should entertain none of these doubts. They have a conventional economic liberal approach to the economy. The Commission’s logic should make perfect sense to them, and it is exactly the sort of opportunity to invest for growth that the country badly needs in their world-view. It means the country is “open for business” in a commonly-used phrase. As such it is much more solidly based than the distinctly shaky HS2, the proposed high speed rail line from London to Birmingham and beyond. The only thing against it is the politics.

A number of their Conservative colleagues are passionately opposed to Heathrow expansion. These include the current London Mayor, Boris Johnson, and the prospective mayor Zac Goldsmith, who has threatened a by-election. These opponents all have seats in the west and southwest of London, where the party did well in May’s General Election. And in 2009 Mr Cameron himself said, “Ni ifs, no buts, no third runway.” But, as the FT’s columnist Janan Ganesh points out, Mr Cameron’s honeymoon is going to end soon anyway. Why not end it in a manner of his choosing, and on an issue that he feels is right? The quote was before a different election, and against a different proposal; and anyway he will be stepping down before the next election. The Lib Dems, who will oppose, have been reduced to a tiny rump in parliament; the Greens only have one MP. MPs from the the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Northern Irish parties are unlikely to show much interest either way. Massive lobbying by Heathrow’s backers will ensure that most of the Tory party stays true, and that any Labour opposition will be divided – indeed their first official response has been to support Heathrow expansion. This is something he can push through. If he acts decisively the whole thing will be a fait-accompli by the time of the General Election in 2020. Even in southwest London it will surely be trumped by other issues by then.

Will he have the nerve? Opponents of Heathrow expansion will hope he doesn’t.

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