Sir Jeremy Heywood has been caught meddling in government matters again. The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg reveals that the Cabinet Secretary wrote to ministers before party conference season to warn them against speaking out on expanding Heathrow Airport while a decision is still being taken. Heywood helpfully said it was fine to reiterate statements made pre-July but they should keep schtum on anything new now, in fear of opening the door to a legal challenge. For a senior civil servant to dole out orders to ministers in this way is pretty irregular— with one member of the cabinet telling the BBC it was ‘unprecedented’.
On the Today programme, the Home Secretary Theresa May said ‘I don’t comment on leaked documents’ before going on to defend Heywood’s intervention:
‘I am very clear of the importance of Cabinet Ministers not making comments on this particular issues such that when a decision is taken, whichever decision is taken at the end, people can complain and say it was somehow it was a priori decision and therefore judicially review it.
‘This is an important decision and it’s right that Cabinet Ministers are not speaking about it publically until a decision is taken. ‘
If there was ever any doubt that the government’s eventual decision on airports will be controversial — a minister has described it as ‘toxic’— the Home Secretary has confirmed it by going on the defensive. May said the Today programme was ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’ over the Heywood leak, but there will be plenty of airport watchers who will be alarmed that the government is attempting to control the process so tightly.
While the government is still expected to back expanding Heathrow is some form, as per Howard Davies’ recommendation, the selection of Zac Goldsmith as the Tories’ London mayoral candidate has complicated the situation. Given the dire state of the Labour party at present, the Tories can glimpse a golden opportunity to hold onto the capital city — but any disunity and infighting over Heathrow would be easy for Labour to exploit. The government must be aware that Mayor of London is essentially a very vocal lobbyist — there is little he or she can practically do to influence the decision. Zac and Boris can vote against it in the Commons, like any other MP, but there is not much else they can do to fight it if it’s passed by Parliament. Some sort of announcement or vote on airports is still expected before the end of the year, but May and Heywood show that this saga is far from over.