Are ministerial resignations even interesting any more? There are more of them in Theresa May’s government than there are solid policy announcements or indeed any sort of decision at all. Today it was the turn of Greg Hands, who announced that he was stepping down as a junior trade minister in order to vote against Heathrow expansion. The vote on building one more runway at the airport finally comes on Monday, and Tory MPs will be whipped to support it. Hands, always a loyalist, was very polite when he announced he was off, describing it as an ‘honour’ to serve Theresa May and previously David Cameron, but he needed to honour his 2017 election pledge to oppose the new runway. He’ll be replaced by George Hollingberry, another true loyalist who has served May as her PPS and is one of her most trusted colleagues.
It’s hardly a caustic resignation, though the fact that it is now quite normal for May to lose ministers isn’t exactly a sign of strength. Neither is the fact that the Heathrow vote is scheduled at the same time as Boris Johnson, long an opponent of Heathrow expansion, is out of the country and cannot get back. Hands’ resignation only highlights Boris’s rather sneaky tactics in managing to avoid this vote, and plenty of Opposition politicians, including Tom Watson and Caroline Lucas, have suggested that there either should be a free vote or that the Foreign Secretary should also leave the government.
Now, the idea that Heathrow expansion should be a free vote just because some MPs don’t like it makes a mockery of the good reasons that political parties exist: to get things done by bringing a group of like-minded people together. This free vote business just suggests that both politics and political parties are inherently malign forces, as opposed to tending, like most things involving humans, to have a few malign types within them. Mind you, it’s a bit too late to moan about the way politicians have approached aviation policy in the South East of England: David Cameron was so keen not to make a decision himself that he decided to ‘take the politics out’ of the matter by handing it over to an Airports Commission. Whenever you hear a politician suggesting ‘taking the politics out’ of something, it’s not because they deplore dogma and partisanship. It’s because they don’t want to make the decision themselves. Presumably from now on, ‘taking the Boris out’ will be a code for ‘avoiding doing what you’ve promised’.
Johnson did make several rather typically Boris-esque pledges to lie down in front of the bulldozers to stop the third runway at Heathrow going ahead, but instead he’s realised that he could just instead have a lie down somewhere abroad. Asked about it today, Theresa May refused to say where the Foreign Secretary was going to be, but told journalists that ‘the Foreign Secretary, early next week, will be what I would describe as a living embodiment of global Britain’. That’s not hugely inspiring, is it?