David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat partners are coming under increasing pressure from Tory ministers and other senior party figures to U-turn on a third runway at Heathrow. Yesterday, in what appeared to be a bid to take over from Justine Greening as Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps became the first minister to call on the Prime Minister to drop the government’s opposition to development at the airport. Today sees the first Cabinet minister to openly voice concerns: Owen Paterson, the Northern Ireland Secretary.
The Sunday Telegraph reports that Paterson has urged colleagues in Cabinet meetings to re-consider the third runway, fearing that economic growth in Northern Ireland will suffer. Within the coalition, there is an increasing understanding – even on the side of the Lib Dems, who are officially opposed to any new development at airports in and around London – that the government needs to expand aviation capacity as one of the shots in the arm of the economy. Coffee Housers will recall that though Nick Clegg’s party will debate a motion at autumn conference rejecting new runways in the South East, the party is, at ministerial level, beginning to warm to the idea of expanding Stansted. This would mean Grant Shapps would not need to replace Justine Greening, who has campaigned against a third runway at Heathrow – although Shapps has been extremely effective as housing minister and would do well in a more senior position. It would also avoid the spectacle of Zac Goldsmith resigning as a Tory before the 2015 election.
I suspect, though, that even if the Lib Dem leadership has recognised that something needs to be done on airports, the grassroots will kick up an almighty fuss if ministers push ahead with any plans that contradict the party’s current position. If nothing changes before the party decamps to Brighton in September, there’s always the chance that serious grassroots opposition will bubble up at the party’s spring conference, as it did over the NHS reforms.Tags: Aviation, Conservatives, Heathrow, Liberal, UK politics