It was difficult not to feel sorry for Transport Secretary Justine Greening this morning as she twisted and turned to avoid questions fired at her by Jim Naughtie on a third runway. Each time Greening thought she had escaped having to tell Radio 4 listeners whether she could remain in the Cabinet should the Prime Minister decide he is indeed a man rather than a mouse and U-turn on expanding Heathrow, Naughtie kept returning to the question:
Naughtie: Let’s be clear about the third runway: is your government open to argument about it, or not?
Greening: No, the Coalition Agreement is very clear that we don’t support a third runway and in fact there is now cross-party consensus against a third runway, but what we do need to do is to start the process of saying, well, if we’re not going to have a third runway, how do we make sure we’ve got the hub capacity that our country needs going forward, and that’s the process I’m about to kick off when Parliament comes back.
Naughtie: You say there is a cross-party consensus, I mean Tim Yeo’s chairman of the Energy and climate change select committee, a senior Conservative backbencher, and he’s not part of that consensus and there are plenty of people who aren’t. Let me just be absolutely clear about your position, because we know that your constituency is on the flight path, we know that your election campaign was based largely, to some extent on the third runway. You could not sit in a Cabinet of a government that proposed a third runway, correct?
Greening: [Laughs] I’m not sitting in a cabinet of a government that proposes a third runway.
Naughtie: You wouldn’t?
Greening: Well, I think at the end of the day…
Naughtie: You might?
Greening: No, I think what I’m saying is we’re about to kick off a process looking at how we can make sure we’ve got the hub capacity our country needs. Yes, I did do a campaign against the third runway, my constituency is under the flight path, so is Philip Hammond’s, as a matter of fact, as well, my predecessor.
They returned to the matter later, when Greening said ‘it would be difficult for me’ to remain in a cabinet position if the government did change tack to support a third runway. It is not really clear why David Cameron thought it was a good idea to appoint Greening to this post in the first place, though. She is able, she’s a woman, she’s from a comprehensive. Those second two attributes would almost be worth more than the first in Cameron’s mission to broaden his party’s appeal base. But though Greening is very talented, she has been put in the wrong job and is now having to squirm as a result.
Her opposition to the third runway was hardly a secret: the election posters and leaflets would have been a bit of a bright blue clue to the Prime Minister. It’s not the same as a minister being promoted to the Treasury, only for them to make a shock announcement that they’ve been secretly wondering all along whether Ed Balls might actually have a point. It suggests that either Number 10 did not think her appointment through, or they never thought they’d ever need to reconsider development at Heathrow.
If she is replaced, though, her successor will still need to explain why a commitment against a third runway in both the Conservative manifesto and the Coalition Agreement might be breached. Greening may have led a prominent local campaign against the runway, but all her colleagues were elected on a pledge to ‘stop the third runway and instead link Heathrow directly to our high speed rail network’, whether or not they highlighted it to their constituents in the same way. There’s also the small matter of the Liberal Democrats’ opposition to a new runway to overcome, too.
But if the Prime Minister is mulling over Tim Yeo’s advice that he ‘must ask himself whether he is man or mouse’, he’ll want to consider the consequences of being the latter. Lib Dem spinner Olly Grender tweeted this morning that she was greeted on arrival in Downing Street by Larry the Number 10 cat, who was sitting proudly next to a dead mouse.Tags: Aviation, Conservatives, Growth, Justine Greening, UK politics