David Cameron faces the biggest dilemma of his second term over whether to approve plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport in the face of a Cabinet revolt by five ministers who oppose the scheme.
The Prime Minister played for time after the Airports Commission chaired by Sir Howard Davies concluded that a new runway at Heathrow would “offer the greatest strategic and economic benefits” but called for legally binding commitments on air quality and noise. However, the three-year inquiry also said a rival plan for a second runway at Gatwick would be credible option and would deliver “valuable economic and employment benefits.”
Mr Cameron is under strong pressure from business leaders to bite the bullet on Heathrow but his Cabinet is split. George Osborne, the Chancellor, and Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary, support expansion at Heathrow but the plan is opposed by five ministers whose constituencies would be affected.
Last night Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary, said her Putney constituents would be “extremely disappointed” by the commission’s proposals. “Noise, pollution, traffic gridlock, high cost and – crucially – opposition from millions of residents under the flight path, are already major concerns at Heathrow,” she said. “I will continue to ensure my local community has its say, as I have done for many years.”
The other Cabinet opponents are Theresa May, the Home Secretary; Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary; Greg Hands, the Chief Treasury Secretary and Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary. They would have to defend the Heathrow decision or resign if the Government gives the commission’s plan the go ahead.
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, said that the Heathrow expansion “will not happen.” His possible Conservative successor Zac Goldsmith renewed his threat to provoke a by-election in his Richmond Park seat if the Government approved the Heathrow scheme.
Some allies say Mr Cameron is reluctant to break his “no ifs, no buts” pledge before the 2010 election not to back a third Heathrow runway. One minister said: “There is more than one option on the table.”
But other ministers predicted that the Prime Minister could be persuaded by the report that expanding Heathrow would be in the national interest.
In the Commons, Mr Cameron argued that giving an instant response before studying the recommendations could result in legal action against the Government – a claim disputed by some lawyers. He promised a decision by the end of the year.
Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, said that in 2009, Mr Cameron was “ talking about the proposal at the time,” which was not a “proper proposal” , unlike the one recommended by the Sir Howard.
Downing Street said the report was “not definitive” or legally binding. Asked about Mr Cameron's earlier pledge, it referred to the Tory manifesto at this year’s election, which said only that the party would “respond” to the commission’s final report.
Labour, which opposed Heathrow expansion under Ed Miliband, did a U-turn, offering to help Mr Cameron get the third runway approved by the Commons in the teeth of Tory opposition. Harriet Harman, the acting Labour leader, taunted Mr Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, asking: “Will he stand up for Britain's interests or will he just be bullied by Boris?”
Mr Johnson, who is also MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, was embroiled in a furious row with the boss of the airport’s biggest customer and Sir Howard. The London Mayor predicted that legal challenges would prevent the third runway ever being built. “I don't think my services as a bulldozer blocker are going to be needed,” he said, referring to a previous promise to oppose a new runway “to the very last ditch”. He said he believed his preferred scheme for a Thames Estuary airport would be revived and prevail.
Willie Walsh, chief executive of IAG - owner of British Airways and Iberia, and holder of more than half the current slots at Heathrow - doubted the third runway would be built, saying: "Without political vision and leadership, it will end up on the shelf gathering dust like its predecessors.”
Sir Howard responded angrily, telling The Independent: “This debate is plagued by people who say 'this is never going to happen'. Willie Walsh has always said it’s never going to happen. Boris Johnson has always said it.”
John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow’s chief executive, said its proposal was “entirely different” to the one rejected by Mr Cameron. “We have U-turned so that the Prime Minister does not need to.” Stewart Wingate, chief executive at Gatwick, said his report was “still very much in the race” because a second runway there was “deliverable,” unlike expansion at Heathrow.Reuse content