If you were hoping for great drama over the Davies Commission’s interim report, you’ve got a while longer. As Patrick McLoughlin made clear in the Commons today, you’re unlikely to hear anything more than ministers repeatedly arguing that something must be done about Britain’s aviation capacity. Just not anything in particular this side of the 2015 general election. The Transport Secretary said:
‘I know that colleagues on both sides of the House will have their views on the content of the commission’s interim report, and in particular on the choices made in shortlisting these options. My principal concern as Secretary of State for Transport is to protect the integrity and independence of the commission process through to the final report, which we expect to be delivered by summer 2015.
‘The government will not therefore be commenting, either today or in responding to the interim report, on the respective merits of the options that have and have not been shortlisted. Given the vital importance of aviation to our nation, I urge colleagues to engage positively with the work of the commission as it moves into the next, equally important phase of its work.’
He wouldn’t even accept that the Davies Commission’s argument that ‘there is a clear case for one net additional runway in London and the South East, to come into operation by 2030′. So while the Conservatives made their own bed in 2010 by setting out such clear promises on not expanding Heathrow, they are now having to lie on it by being as unclear as possible for the 2015 election.
Does this mean that Zac Goldsmith, who has made dark threats about a by-election, won’t step down until the summer of 2015 when the government (assuming it is a Tory-flavoured government) makes a decision on this? Well, on the Daily Politics today, he said his pledge to his constituents was that if his party changes its position on Heathrow expansion, he will automatically trigger a by-election. ‘It’s an old pledge I made before the election which I would honour,’ he said. Asked what he would do if his party did not rule out expansion at Heathrow as part of its 2015 campaign, Goldsmith said:
‘I’m applying maximum pressure, and I know a lot of other backbenchers, even those who support Heathrow expansion, are applying a lot of pressure on the government to get off the fence. I think the only news today really – we all knew that the report would have a pro-Heathrow expansion bias, the only real news today I think is that the pressure on all three leaders to get off the fence this side of the election has massively escalated. It’s no longer tenable to imagine any of them going into the election with ambiguity, they have to have a clear position.’
Jo Coburn then asked what he would do if the Conservative manifesto didn’t rule out Heathrow expansion. Goldsmith replied:
‘Then I would have to repeat my pledge that if after the election there is a U-turn in the way that I’ve been anticipating in the run-up to the election, then I would trigger a by-election.’
So what will probably happen is that the Conservative 2015 manifesto will include a wishy-washy line on ‘awaiting the conclusions of the Davies Commission’ without any further commitment. No fireworks, then, until after that election, at least where Goldsmith is concerned. And today gave backbenchers whose constituencies will be affected by Heathrow expansion the chance to mutter darkly about it, but without any real drama. In that sense the Davies Commission is being extraordinarily successful: the government has achieved its aim of kicking aviation, and connected resignations and fights, into the long grass. Goldsmith thinks that today’s interim report will increase pressure on the three party leaders to have a clear position. But that is not necessarily the case. The three parties can simply hold their breath until after the general election. Unless one of them breaks ranks, no-one need discuss airports at all after today.Tags: Aviation, Davies Commission, Heathrow, UK politics, Zac Goldsmith