Today Parliament is expected to finally give plans for a third runway at Heathrow airport the green light. The vote will not be without its dramas. The Conservatives (along with their friends the DUP) are on a three-line whip to vote for it. This decision has seen Greg Hands resign as a trade minister and Boris Johnson mysteriously absent for the vote – thanks to Foreign Office business. Given that the Foreign Secretary once said that he would ‘lie down in front of those bulldozers’ were the expansion to happen it may be that his protest will come later.
As for Labour, Jeremy Corbyn’s party have been granted a free vote on the issue. Although the Leader’s Office is rather anti-Heathrow – and the shadow chancellor John McDonnell has a constituency in its path – Unite are pro the plans. One Labour official tells me that the money Len McCluskey’s Unite plugged into the ailing Labour Live festival may have helped to get to this point across. Meanwhile, the SNP are ‘in the air’ as to how to vote. Although they support the plans in theory, there are concerns about the optics of voting with the Tories.
A third runway at Heathrow is forecast to cost about £14bn, increase capacity from 85.5m passengers to 130m and create 180,000 jobs across the UK. However, the environmental and noise factors mean the plans are seen as toxic to residents in the surrounding areas. An enlarged Heathrow is predicted by environmental charities to emit as much carbon as the whole of Portugal. Not helping matters is the fact it will probably result in hundreds of homes being demolished in nearby villages. That’s hardly a good look for a government that claims its No 1 domestic focus is building more homes.
So, what will be going through the minds of MPs today who back the plans? Speaking to various pro-Heathrow MPs in recent days over their impending decision, what’s striking is that none seem particularly enthusiastic. The main factor in favour of expansion seems to be that it’s dragged on long enough (the Davies report recommended expansion in 2015) and they need to look as though they’re doing something. At a time of change, there’s a sense that the Tories ought to show they are open for business. Uncertainty over Brexit may make this more difficult but indecision over this business plan can be avoided.
The problem is, as one Labour MP who was previously pro-Heathrow expansion said to me, that the decision has already run on so much that many of the factors in favour of it have since changed. There’s a worry among members of the Commons’ transport committee that any green light could be open to legal challenge and yet more delays. Not that this will worry the government too much today, as one Tory MP recently said: ‘all that matters nowadays is that we’ve got through another day.’ Perhaps, but even if Heathrow is given the green light this afternoon, don’t expect this to be a matter of case closed.