Whatever happened to the political squall that was Heathrow’s third runway? For several years it looked as if the issue could deeply harm the Conservatives. After all, hadn’t David Cameron ruled out a third runway – “no ifs, no buts” – in 2010. It was deeply embarrassing for him to do an about turn two years later and say well, maybe – even if he did attempt to wriggle out of the charge of hypocrisy by trying to outsource the decision to Sir Howard Davies. West London Tory MPs threatened to rebel, splitting his party. Like John Major on Maastricht, Cameron thought that by endlessly putting off the day of decision everything would come out alright in the end.
And in a sense he was right. Where is the political sting over today’s decision to go ahead with the third runway? Boris might have to be shipped out of the country for the vote, or allowed licensed dissent. Justine Greening will vote against, but so what? There will be no government defeat. The possibility of that effectively disappeared with the about-turn by the SNP in 2016, which says it is now in favour of the third runway. With 35 SNP votes in the bag, Theresa May can be generous with requests from any of her London MPs to be allowed to express their opposition. The SNP finished absolutely any prospect of Labour using Heathrow as an opportunity to defeat the government. In any case, many Labour MPs are in favour.
The battle for Heathrow has been won by attrition, and by Brexit. The decision to go ahead seems to have been made so many times that it no longer has any shock value. Anyone experiencing a sense of déjà vu at today’s decision can be forgiven – the government, or so we thought, made this ‘decision’ once before, in December 2016.
In the meantime, the communities which were so robustly against the scheme have been hollowed-out by speculators. Once Heathrow promised to buy any properties needed for the scheme for 125 per cent of their market value buying a house in Harmondsworth, Sipson or Longford became a one-way bet. If the runway went ahead, buyers would cash in with that 25 per cent uplift in value. If the runway scheme was dropped, the property market could be expected to recover. Meanwhile, there is a ready market for tenants: not just in the shape of airport workers but in asylum-seekers, too. Large numbers of long-term residents, tired of the battle, have sold out to the speculators. There is an environmental protest camp on the site of an old nursery, but it lies outside the area which will be needed for the airport expansion.
Meanwhile, David Cameron has become ancient history and Brexit has taken over the role of the political issue most likely to damage the government. There will still be a few marches, sit-ins and so on. But the political heat has largely dissipated from Heathrow. If anything stops it now, it won’t be politics – it will be business. Whether airlines will be prepared to stump up the money Heathrow will need from them to fund the airport expansion hasn’t yet been tested. If the industry goes any further down the route of Ryanair, the airlines might decide they would rather take off and land beside a tin shed somewhere in the Midlands than pay for a spanking new expanded Heathrow. That is where the remaining Heathrow rebels should pin their hopes.